There is a common adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. It would seem that the pen is also mightier than the self-styled “toughest sheriff in America,” Joe Arpaio of Arizona.
For years before the night of October 18, 2007, journalists Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin, founders of the Phoenix New Times, have chronicled the illegal and often outrageous exploits of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his “Selective Enforcement Unit (SEU).
While the mainstream media often portrayed Arpaio as a colorful, if somewhat eccentric character, Lacey and Larkin, through the Phoenix New Times, painted a much more sinister picture. A picture of racial profiling, fiscal mismanagement, and rampant persecution of anyone perceived as an enemy of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). A picture of substandard lockups resulting in the injuries, illnesses, and even deaths of detainees.
But on that fateful night, the MCSO finally struck back. Deputies went to the homes of Lacey and Larkin, handcuffed them, placed them in unmarked SUVs, and took them to jail.
Technically, Lacey and Larkin were arrested for revealing the existence of grand jury subpoenas ordering them to turn over details about their employees and anyone who went online and read their articles about the MCSO. They were also accused of placing Sheriff Arpaio in danger by publishing his home address, both in print and on the New Time website.
Less than 24 hours later, Lacey and Larkin were free and all charges were dropped. No hard feelings. Except that Lacey and Larkin had hard feelings, a lot of them.
They filed suit against the MCSO for, among other things, false arrest. This strange case wound its way through the legal system until it ended up in the Federal Ninth Circuit Court. Judge Jay S. Bybee, writing for the majority, said that “… Arpaio was demanding that charges be filed and that if no charges were filed, there would be ‘problems’ between the MSCO and the Maricopa County Attorneys’ Office MCAO.” The court also noted that “…numerous public documents contained Arpaio’s personal information” and noting that “Arpaio had waited ten months to request a prosecution… .”
The court further ruled that the “grand jury subpoenas” concerning Lacey, Larken, and the New Times were illegal and stated that “It is hard to conceive of a more direct assault on the First Amendment than public officials ordering the immediate arrests of their critics.”
Maricopa County officials finally decided to reach a settlement with Lacey and Larkin for $3.7 million. Among other things, the money was used to set up the Fortera Fund, which dispersed it to a variety of immigrant rights organizations.