California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on Wednesday that he would be launching a Civil Rights investigation into Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith.
Smith, a graduate of San Jose State, California Polytechnic University at Pomona, and the FBI Academy, was elected and sworn in as Santa Clara County’s Sheriff in 1998 following 8 years as the Assistant Sheriff. While Smith has received praise during her long tenure, such as winning the Assembly’s Woman of the Year Award and being the President of the California State Sheriff’s Association, she has facing increasing criticism since the early 2010’s over many of her actions and actions of the department under her watch.
In 2011, a lawsuit alledged that Smith had given concealed carry permits on a preferential basis, favoring family, friends, and donors, with later findings showing that the permits were given out on a basis of who donated to her reelection campaign.
Several Santa Clara County Jail guards also wound up convicted of killing a mentally disabled inmate in 2017, the result of which led to a more difficult reelection race than usual for Smith. This was followed by a 2018 incident where a man inflicted injuries to himself while in a Sheriff’s Department van.
However, the biggest shifts have come within the last few years. In 2020, five members of the Sheriff’s office, including Undersheriff Rick Sung, were indicted for their roles in the concealed carry controversy. Smith followed them in December of 2021, being indicted by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury on seven counts of corruption and misconduct. Last week in court she did not enter a plea.
In addition, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors also gave a no-confidence vote of Smith last year for not providing social safety-nets for those with mental illnesses.
A state investigation
The growing number of accusations and incidents led the Board of Supervisors to request an outside investigation by the California Attorney General’s office, a request which was granted on Wednesday. While Attorney General Bonta could not give many details on Wednesday due to the pending investigation of Smith, he did note that the investigation would be looking into unconstitutional conduct.
“The purpose of the probe is to determine whether the sheriff’s office engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct that could merit corrective action.” said Bonta on Wednesday. “I will say that there have been there has been much written about and discussed about how individuals within the jail in Santa Clara County, how they’ve been beaten, the conditions of confinement. There have been deaths and injuries in custody.
“Public safety is built on trust,” added Bonta in a press release. “When communities feel they are treated fairly and equitably by law enforcement, it increases trust and that in turn contributes to increased public safety. However, it is clear that there is a lack of trust in Santa Clara County as a result of deeply concerning allegations around county jail facilities and other misconduct. These concerns have been repeatedly voiced by elected leaders, editorial boards, community members, and more. Bottom line: Public institutions are subject to public oversight. That’s why the California Department of Justice is launching a pattern or practice investigation into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. We will be thorough and impartial in our efforts to ensure that the civil rights of the people of Santa Clara County are respected.”
Sheriff Smith responded on Wednesday, noting that she would be giving the Attorney General’s office all records and would cooperate fully with the investigation.
“I have great confidence in the Attorney General’s Office and I believe they will provide the expertise for a fair and impartial investigation,” said Sheriff Smith.
Legal experts noted that while it isn’t usual for Attorney General’s to investigate County Sheriff’s Offices to this degree, the fact that the Sheriff might be ousted if found guilty seems to be enough to warrant their involvement.
“No one wants to see a big investigation like this happen,” said Michael Jaworski, a Northern California Attorney, to the Globe on Wednesday. “No one wants to believe that their Sheriff has done this much to hurt the people of the County. But there are multiple accusations now, and she was indicted just last month. A state probe is really needed at this point.”
As of Wednesday, Smith has not yet announced if she will run for Sheriff again this year. If her accusations go to trial and she is found guilty, she may be removed from office.
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