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No Qualified Immunity for Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Newspaper Lawsuit

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

“America's toughest sheriff” is going to need America's toughest litigators: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the owners of the Phoenix New Times can sue the Maricopa County Sheriff's office for their 2007 arrests, reports the Huffington Post.

The two men, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, are suing Sheriff Joe Arpaio for $15 million, alleging false arrest, due process violations, and selective prosecution.

As you might guess, there's no love lost between Sheriff Arpaio and the PNT, the weekly newspaper at the center of the case.

In 2004, the PNT published an article questioning why Arpaio had removed his personal information from a number of public records that detailed his commercial land holdings. Arpaio responded that he didn't want his address to be available to the public out of concern for safety. The PNT countered that government and political websites included Arpaio's address, and proved this by publishing his address, which it obtained from such websites.

Arpaio later asked Andrew Thomas, the newly-elected county attorney and Arpaio's political ally, to look into charges against the PNT for violating an Arizona statute that prohibited Internet disseminations of law enforcement officers' personal information. After three years of legal and political maneuvering, a grand jury and a special prosecutor, Dennis Wilenchik, started investigating the PNT at Arpaio and Thomas' behest.

Wilenchik's investigation led to illegal subpoenas, a request for a $90 million fine against the newspaper, and Hollywood-style, unmarked-car, warrantless, nighttime arrests of the two PNT executives.

Though the charges against the pair were dropped within 24 hours, Lacey and Larkin sued various public officials associated with the case, including Arpaio. The district court and a three-judge appellate panel blocked most of the claims from proceeding to trial, including claims against Arpaio for his role in the fiasco. In previous rulings, the courts found that the sheriff was protected by qualified immunity.

This week, the en banc court reinstated the case, and criticized Arpaio's tactics in the matter. "Sheriff Arpaio should have known that arresting someone at his home requires a warrant, unless there are exigent circumstances ... No warrant for Lacey's or Larkin's arrest had been issued, and we cannot fathom what exigent circumstances compelled either arrest."

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