Local political leaders may disagree with Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s recent campaigns to root out those suspected of living in the country illegally, but criticism that he should spend more time serving felony warrants appears off-base.
Currently there are 70,000 outstanding warrants for those who failed to show up for court appearances. And more than 40,000 of those were issued against defendants accused of committing more serious felony crimes.
Last week, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon accused Arpaio of creating a “sanctuary-county” for some of the state’s most dangerous criminals because he is ignoring the felony warrants piling up on his desk in order to pursue illegal immigrants.
While it’s true he and his deputies have the responsibility to arrest anyone they encounter with an unresolved felony warrant, so does every other law enforcement agency in the Arizona. State law does not require the sheriff’s office to go after outstanding warrants as other states do. It only mandates the department store information regarding warrants issued by the courts.
In addition, sheriffs’ officials from Coconino, Pima, Pinal, and Yuma counties all agree that it’s not the sole responsibility of their departments to hunt down fugitives.
“It’s pretty much a shared function with the local agencies around here,” said Jerry Blair, a spokesman for Coconino County Sheriff’s department. “We work with them and they work with us.”
Other states, like California, have laws requiring the various sheriffs departments throughout the state to track down fugitives.
If a defendant does not appear in court, a warrant is issued and that information it plugged into national and statewide databases. That information is then available for all law enforcement officials during routine traffic stops.
David Gonzales, the U.S. Marshal for Arizona, said most of the suspected felons are found during traffic stops and other random interactions with police officers, not specific operations aimed at hunting them down. Last year, Gonzales said his agency arrested more than 6,000 fugitives on federal and local warrants in Arizona. “The bottom line is that it’s everyone’s responsibility to handle this,” he said.
However, the Phoenix mayor disagrees. He points to a specific line in state law that says the sheriff must “serve process and notices.”
“I certainly think a warrant is a notice,” he said during a phone interview on Monday. Gordon then continued his pointed criticisms of the sheriff, saying Arpaio is risking public safety with his crime suppression operations aimed at illegal immigrants. It was yet another round in the very public battle between the Phoenix mayor and the county sheriff that started last month after Arpaio sent his deputies into Hispanic neighborhoods to target illegal immigrants.
Arpaio had ordered his deputies to stop drivers for routine traffic violations such as cracked windshields, broken tail lights and littering. Anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant was arrested and booked in the Maricopa County Jail.
Shortly after the sheriff’s operations began, Gordon spoke out against the sheriff for not cooperating with Phoenix police and called them “made-for-TV stunts.” Last week, he ratcheted up his rhetoric by filing a complaint with the U.S. Attorney’s office asking the federal agency to investigate Arpaio for potential civil right’s abuse during his raids. He then used his State of the City Address to challenge Arpaio for not pursuing the thousands of outstanding felony warrants in the county.
While the Phoenix mayor criticized Arpaio, his city generates the most felony warrants of any in the county, according to county records. Currently Phoenix has generated about 12,000 felony warrants. That number is far ahead of Mesa, which came in second with about 3,200. Gordon said his police department aggressively goes after those warrants and challenged the sheriff to do so as well.
Arpaio pointed out that during the nearly 30 hours his deputies have spent on the crime suppression operations, he has arrested more than 30 people who had outstanding warrants.
“We don’t tell them to show up in court,” he said. “We put them in jail.”