PHOENIX - Federal Judge G. Murray Snow ruled Friday that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was in civil contempt of court, but left the door open to a criminal prosecution of the sheriff for ignoring the judge's orders to end racial profiling by his office.

Snow held Arpaio; his Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan; retired chief Brian Sands; and Lt. Joe Sousa in civil contempt.

The judge set a hearing for May 31 on the possible penalties. Snow noted in the very last line of his 162-page order: "... the court will determine if it will refer any matters for criminal contempt."

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Snow's findings show he believes there is a basis for a criminal contempt referral, which involves willfully ignoring the judges' orders.

This is Snow's summary of his findings:

"In short, the Court finds that the Defendants have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the Plaintiff class and the protection of its rights. They have demonstrated a persistent disregard for the orders of this Court, as well as an intention to violate and manipulate the laws and policies regulating their conduct as they pertain to their obligations to be fair, 'equitable[,] and impartial' with respect to the interests of the Plaintiff class."

"This is the equivalent of a billboard or a sign on the freeway saying. 'Caution. You are about to be prosecuted. If you think you ought not to be, let me know why,'" said Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona.

The backstory

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow's ruling issued Friday against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio appears to have been foreshadowed by a growing impatience among those in position to serve as watchdogs over the embattled police agency.

The strongest indicators came just last month when the U.S. Department of Justice reprimanded Arpaio and his staff for failures to implement court remedies ordered by Snow.
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"What the judge says multiple times is, 'I find you intentionally violated my order. I find you intentionally made misstatements under oath here in court,'" said Charlton. "It is that word -- intentionally -- that brings a matter from the civil realm and puts it in the criminal realm."

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attorneys released the following statement Friday afternoon:

"We have just received the Court’s Findings of Fact and various civil contempt findings relating to four individuals in Melendres v. Arpaio. We have begun our reading and analysis of this lengthy document, and expect to file a responsive memorandum. Despite disagreeing with some of the Court’s findings, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office will continue to work with the court appointed Monitor, the ACLU and Plaintiffs to comply with the Court’s Orders, as it has since January 2014."

Leaders in the Hispanic community held a press conference after the ruling was announced. "This is a victory for the community, those who say enough is enough," Lydia Guzman said.

Charlton, as an attorney in private practice, defended county supervisors who were investigated by Arpaio.

Snow's ruling comes six months after the end of contempt hearings that produced several bombshells, including the disclosure of Arpaio's investigation of the judge's wife.

If Snow decided to refer Arpaio for criminal prosecution, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix would have to decide whether to accept the case or decline to prosecute.

Under Arizona law, prosecution on a criminal contempt charge would not force Arpaio's removal from office. But it could cripple the 83-year-old sheriff's bid for a seventh term in office in the fall.

Nationally, Arpaio's contempt case could become an embarrassment for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who's been endorsed by the fellow immigration hard-liner.

READ: Full ruling

Arpaio had already admitted to civil contempt of court at the start of the hearings last April, claiming the judge's orders "slipped through the cracks."

He and Sheridan offered to settle the case by donating $100,000 to charity. The judge rejected the offer.

The questions before Snow were the remedies for civil contempt and whether to refer Arpaio for criminal prosecution.

The contempt finding stems from Judge Snow's landmark ruling in May 2013 that Arpaio and MCSO deputies had violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers and passengers who were American citizens. Snow ordered Arpaio to end the practice and installed a court monitor to ensure the sheriff followed his orders.

One year ago, Snow ordered contempt hearings after receiving evidence that Arpaio and his top commanders had ignored the judge's orders by:

-Continuing to allow deputies to enforce federal immigration law

-Not disclosing all required information before the racial-profiling trial

-Failing to follow oral orders

Taxpayers' bill for the nine-year-old racial-profiling case could hit $54 million this year, according to records provided by Maricopa County:

-$10.3 million on attorney's fees

-$5.6 million on non-attorney costs

-$26 million for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office to comply with Snow's original ruling in May 2013

Those numbers don't include an additional $12 million in expenses budgeted for the current fiscal year.

Following Friday's ruling, Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo released the following statement:

“Today’s ruling by Judge Snow is the first step toward achieving justice for those whose civil rights were intentionally violated by Sheriff Arpaio. It is unfortunate, that once again the taxpayers of Maricopa County have to pick up the tab for his mistakes. When we vote on the FY ’17 budget next week, the Board of Supervisors will appropriate millions of dollars so the sheriff’s office comes into compliance with the court orders. The irony is, while citizens pay the bill for the Sheriff’s violation of the previous court orders, they are the only ones who can remove Arpaio from office and restore professionalism to our law enforcement agency.“This is not a partisan issue. All of us who live in Maricopa County should be alarmed that his actions damage the reputation of the County and to date has cost us at least $40 million on this one case.”