California attorney general to investigate troubled Bay Area sheriff’s office
California’s attorney general on Wednesday announced a civil rights investigation into the office of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, a polarizing figure who is fighting formal public corruption accusations following a vote of no confidence by the county’s Board of Supervisors.
Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta declined to lay out specific allegations because the investigation is pending.
But he said the purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office “engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct” that could merit corrective action.
“I will say that there have 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 Smith’s attorney, Allen Ruby, did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Bonta’s announcement.
Santa Clara County sheriff calls for an in-depth review to get the ‘true facts’ after allegations of jail mismanagement and inmate abuse.
Smith’s office has had to pay costly settlements to people with mental illnesses 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.
In 2015, a county inmate was beaten to death by three jail guards, and another inmate died after guards shot him with plastic projectiles from 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 Mercury News of San Jose reported.
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 and it’s unclear whether the case will go to trial. If it does go to trial and jurors find her guilty on any of the charges, she will be forcibly removed from office, the Mercury News reported.
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.
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