By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department will decide whether criminal contempt charges will be brought against Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio for violating court orders in a racial profiling case, court documents released late on Friday showed.

    The department's criminal division has been assigned the case against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and three others after the U.S. Attorney's Office for Arizona asked to be recused, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. 

The criminal referral centers on U.S. District Judge Murray Snow's ruling that Arpaio intentionally violated a 2011 court order barring the sheriff's office from stopping and detaining drivers solely based on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally. The stops continued for another 18 months.

Snow also cited Arpaio and his office for failing to disclose documents and preserve records in the case, as ordered.

The referral came 11 days before the 84-year-old Arpaio, who has proclaimed himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,’ is slated to face-off against three others in a Republican primary on Aug. 30 in a bid for his seventh term as sheriff.

    Political observers say he should win the primary, but is expected to be in a fight in the November general election.

   The court filing stated that the recusal of the U.S. Attorney's Office was "based upon existing conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest," without elaboration. A spokesman declined comment on Friday.

     Last Friday, Snow recommended Arpaio face criminal charges for ignoring court orders arising out of the judge's ruling that Arpaio and his deputies were guilty of racial profiling of Latino motorists.

    Snow also sought criminal charges against Arpaio's second-in-command, Gerard Sheridan, along with Maricopa County Sheriff's Captain Steve Bailey and an Arpaio attorney, Michele Iafrate.

     Arpaio's criminal defense attorney, Mel McDonald, said on Friday he was not surprised about the transfer to the justice department, adding that it was immediately unclear what effect that will have in the case. McDonald has said the sheriff disputes Snow's determination.

     It will be up to justice department officials whether to pursue any charges after an investigation. If not, another judge assigned to the case could appoint a special prosecutor to take up the matter.

    Criminal contempt charges carry penalties of incarceration and fines.

    Arpaio and Sheridan already have admitted to civil contempt for violating court orders. But said their conduct was not willful or intentional – key standards for a criminal prosecution.

(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Curtis Skinner and Simon Cameron-Moore)