California Attorney General Rob Bonta today (Jan. 19) announced a civil rights investigation into the office of Santa Clara Sheriff Laurie Smith, who is fighting formal public corruption accusations following a no-confidence vote by the county’s board of supervisors.
Bonta declined to lay out specific allegations because the investigation is pending.
But he said 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.
“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,” he said. “There have been deaths and injuries in custody.”
The sheriff’s office and her attorney, Allen Ruby, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Bonta’s announcement.
Smith’s office has had to pay costly settlements to people who are mentally ill who were severely injured while in jail custody, including $10 million to the family of a man who inflicted serious injuries on himself while inside a jail transport van in 2018.
And in 2015, a county inmate was beaten to death by three jail guards and another inmate died after guards shot him with a riot gun at close range. Both inmates had a mental illness.
Smith objected to a vote of no-confidence taken by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in August, saying members are blaming her for their failure to provide safety-net services for mentally ill people.
The county board in August requested outside investigations by Bonta’s office as well as the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury.
In December, the civil grand jury formally accused Smith of one count of willful misconduct and six counts of “willful and corrupt” misconduct, including an allegation that she issued hard-to-get concealed-carry weapons permits to political donors and supporters, according to the news organization.
Smith did not enter a plea to the civil accusations in court last week. If the case goes to trial and jurors find her guilty on any of the charges, she will be forcibly removed from office.
Smith has not said whether she will run for a seventh term this year.
A statement from Bonta’s office explained that a civil “pattern or practice” investigation like the one Smith’s office faces usually works to identify and compel, if appropriate, corrective action to fix systemic violations.
Last month, his office launched a review of the Torrance Police Department. It is also conducting an investigation into the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. — By the Associated Press