PHOENIX - A federal judge asked prosecutors Friday to file criminal contempt charges against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a devastating blow to Arpaio's aura of invincibility and possibly to his career as sheriff.

The case now goes to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix, which will decide whether to pursue charges.


Judge G. Murray Snow also referred Arpaio's top deputy, Jerry Sheridan, for prosecution on criminal contempt charges, as well as Capt. Steve Bailey and former Arpaio attorney Michele Iafrate.

READ: Judge G. Murray Snow's ruling issued Friday

"Criminal contempt serves to vindicate the court's authority by punishing the intentional disregard of that authority," Snow wrote.

"Sheriff Arpaio and Chief Deputy Sheridan have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this Court’s orders that is as old as this case and did not stop after they themselves became the subjects of civil contempt."

In his recommendation, the judge explained just how blatant he felt Arpaio's mistreatment of truth was:

"The test is not whether the testimony was perjurious or false but whether without the aid of extrinsic evidence the testimony is 'so plainly inconsistent, so manifestly contradictory, and so conspicuously unbelievable as to make it apparent from the face of the record itself that the witness has deliberately concealed the truth and has given answers which are replies in form only and which, in substance, are as useless as a complete refusal to answer.'"

The judge's referral of Arpaio for prosecution marks the first time in a 24-year career carpeted with lawsuits that the might be held personally responsible for misdeeds.

The judge's decision comes as voters cast mail-in ballots in the Republican primary for sheriff, where the 84-year-old sheriff faces three rivals Aug. 30 in his bid for a seventh term in office.

%INLINE%A criminal contempt charge would likely be a misdemeanor, according to Kurt Altman, a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. If the criminal contempt amounted to the more serious obstruction of justice, a felony charge could be filed, he said.

Sentencing guidelines for a misdemeanor are zero to six months in prison, but probation is likely, Altman said.

"Contempt leaves a lot up to the judge's discretion," he said.

The penalty for obstruction of justice could be 15 to 21 months in prison, he said.

Judge Snow left the door open to possible prosecution of Arpaio for perjury by the U.S Department of Justice.

'They lied to my face'

Judge Snow, an appointee of Republican President George W. Bush, had telegraphed his criminal contempt finding back in May. He issued "Findings of Fact" after hearings into whether Arpaio ignored Snow's orders to end racial profiling of Latinos by Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies.

Snow cited Arpaio's "attitude of hostility" toward the court; "multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith"; and "deliberate misstatements of fact ... under oath," which constitutes perjury.

At a July 22 hearing, where Arpaio's attorney had one last chance to change the judge's mind, Snow was blunt.

"They lied to my face," he said of Arpaio and his top deputy, Jerry Sheridan. "I am through putting up with this stuff."

The contempt finding stems from 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.

Snow also called out Iafrate directly in this recommendation.

"There is probable cause to conclude not only that Ms. Iafrate intentionally advised her client to disobey this Court's order," Snow wrote, "but that she advised her client to be untruthful in doing so."

What happens next

Altman said Judge Snow's request to the federal prosecutor is much like Phoenix police investigating a case and then submitting a report to the county attorney, who would make the decision on charges.

The decision on whether to file criminal charges now rests with U.S. Attorney John Leonardo. If he proceeds, Leonardo would convene a grand jury to obtain an indictment against Arpaio, which would result in the sheriff being formally charged.

If he is charged, Arpaio would not be required to leave office.

Leonardo, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2012, is not obligated to pursue criminal charges. He could decline the case or hand it off to a prosecutor in another jurisdiction.

Leonardo has a history with Arpaio that could complicate his decision.

Four years ago, Leonardo disqualified himself from the U.S. attorney office's abuse-of-power investigation of Arpaio that was underway when he took over.

As a Pima County Superior Court judge in 2010, Leonardo had found that Arpaio "misused the power of his office" in his criminal investigation of County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. Leonardo dismissed the charges against Wilcox.

Will DOJ sign off?

Altman, who represented former County Supervisor Don Stapley in another Arpaio investigation, said the U.S. Department of Justice would have to review any charging decision and might even postpone a review by prosecutors.

"There will be several layers of approval," Altman said. "Six months prior to an election, DOJ's loose policy is they're not going to bring charges against a politician."

When she was in Phoenix in June, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she was familiar with the Arpaio case but declined to comment on it. Department of Justice lawyers have been tracking the case, either in person in court or via teleconference.

Arpaio pays the bills

The 9-year-old racial profiling case has cost county taxpayers $54 million to date, largely for attorney fees and the cost of implementing Judge Snow's orders.

Arpaio is personally responsible for all costs related to a criminal case. He hired former federal prosecutor Mel McDonald last year to handle his criminal defense.

The sheriff earns $100,824 a year and, with his wife, Ava, owns a travel agency and commercial property in Scottsdale that is valued at up to $2 million.