Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department Held in Civil Contempt for Failure to Produce Responsive Items
In Melendres v. Arpaio et. al., Case No. 07-2513, a class action lawsuit filed by residents of Maricopa County, Arizona, against Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, Maricopa County, and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for racial profiling and unlawful traffic stops of Latinos, the court had issued a preliminary injunction in late 2011 preventing Defendants from detaining individuals solely based upon their status as illegal immigrants.
In May 2016, the court issued a 162 page ruling, wherein it presented its examination of whether the preliminary injunction had been violated, and whether Defendants had negligently or intentionally failed to comply with their discovery obligations. Sheriff Arpaio admitted to being in civil contempt for failure of Defendants to provide required documents, but asserted that such failure to comply was not intentional.
Plaintiffs had sent preservation letters in July 2008 requesting preservation of all documents, including electronically stored information (ESI), related to crime suppression operations. Police Chief MacIntyre did not send on the preservation letter to anyone. However, the court ruled that since the preservation letter was not a court order, MacIntyre’s failure to appropriately communicate the letter merited sanction, but did not provide basis for a finding of civil contempt against MacIntyre. A public access request was also sent to Lt. Culhane at Maricopa County, and she treated this as constituting a litigation hold request, instructing the appropriate units to preserve all electronic and hard copy documents responsive to the request.
The court, however, ascertained multiple failures by Defendants in preserving evidence, including failure to preserve recordings of traffic stops (audio and video). Defendants were determined to have violated the court’s order to gather recordings responsive to the requests “quietly.” It was found that the officers were instead informed in advance that the recordings were being collected. The court further found that Defendants caused the destruction of responsive recordings, in that the advance warning caused many officers to destroy recordings showing bad acts and to then deny that they did not record the stops.
Civil contempt orders were issued as to Sheriff Arpaio and three non-party contemnors (employees or former employees of the Sheriff’s department), with a further hearing set as to the relief to be accorded and whether any of the matters would be referred for criminal contempt proceedings.