Friday, October 19, 2007

Has Sheriff Joe finally gone too far?

There is a place in the hotter climes where the local gendarmerie is headed up by strutting buffoon of a man who would be comic-opera fodder if he weren't so dangerous and powerful. Despite his thuggish behavior, this local chieftain has held his post through popular acclaim for what seems like eternity, though it has really been 15 years. While he may have the support of the people, the official leaves nothing to chance; he's notorious for purging dissidents from the ranks of his command, using his troops to spy on political opponents and even jailing journalists who cross him -- all in defiance of the formal laws of the land.

This unhappy place is Maricopa County, Arizona, and the bully who lords over the place is Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "America's toughest sheriff" is probably best known for forcing inmates in his jails to sleep in tents in the desert heat and wear pink underwear. In fact, though, Arpaio has drawn international attention and federal scrutiny for treatment of prisoners that is utterly brutal -- and sometimes lethal.

Arpaio's political dirty-tricks campaigns are less well-known beyond Arizona, and don't appear to have hurt him with county voters. It's no secret, though, that Arpaio has forced out deputies he considers disloyal. Nor is it a surprise to any Arizonan to hear that Maricopa County deputies have been caught conducting surveillance on anybody brave enough to run against Arpaio in an election or pick a fight with him in public. Perhaps the most prominent recipient of the Arpaio treatment was former County Attorney Rick Romley, who went to the feds with allegations that Arpaio's private army was spying on him.

Romley has since been succeeded by Andrew Thomas, an Arpaio ally.

Through all the years of Arpaio's reign, his most consistent critic has been the Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly. The New Times has consistently questioned the sheriff's ethics, respect for civil liberties and fitness to hold office.

Now Arpaio has struck back, in spades.

First, Arpaio crony Thomas engineered a grand jury subpoena to the newspaper -- a document that the daily Arizona Republic describes as "unusually broad" and about which Professor James Weinstein of Arizona State University says, "It has got to be unconstitutional."

The subpoena alleges that the New Times disclosed Arpaio's home address in several critical articles (apparently a crime in this state). It seeks details about the source documents for those articles, but also for information about every Internet surfer who may have read those articles online over the past four years.

Upon receiving the subpoena, the New Times responded by running an in-depth article on the contents of the document and its implications for free speech -- again flirting with the law, which treats grand jury information as a state secret.

Arpaio retaliated quickly -- by arresting Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the two executives whose names appeared over the article about the subpoena.

It's possible that Arpaio has overstepped this time. The arrests are garnering press coverage around the country, and the First Amendment that the sheriff is trampling over in his effort to muzzle critics is one of the few parts of the Bill of Rights that still enjoys a fair degree of respect. Lacey and Larkin will certainly be able to pursue redress in the federal courts, which aren't as cozy with the sheriff as the state and local judicial system.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio may be a Third-World-style thug from Hollywood central casting, but he may find the larger world finally intruding into his private domain.

Update: With newspaper editorial boards and the blogosphere rightfully frothing at the mouth over the Arpaio-Thomas junta's blatant assault on press freedom, all charges have been dropped against the Phoenix New Times and its staff and the special prosecutor in the case, Dennis Wilenchik, has been fired.

Thomas and Wilenchik now face an investigation into legal and ethical complaints by the Arizona Bar Association.

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