Another investigation of the office of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith was announced this week, this time by California Attorney General Rob Bonta, increasing the pressure on the embattled six-term sheriff to resign or not seek re-election.
Smith already faces a possible civil court trial in the spring, following a blistering civil grand jury report last month, which followed a unanimous no-confidence vote in August by the Board of Supervisors and calls for her resignation led by San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.
Smith, who turns 70 in June, is holding firm, hiring a pair of Silicon Valley heavyweights, Allen Ruby and Jim McManus, to mount a legal challenge to grand jury accusations of misconduct. If that case goes to trial, she could be removed from office, with a new interim sheriff appointed by county supervisors.
Bonta on Jan. 19 announced the launch of a civil rights investigation into the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, seeking “to determine whether [the office] has engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct amidst deeply concerning allegations relating to conditions of confinement in its jail facilities, resistance to lawful oversight, and other misconduct.”
His senior assistant attorney general, Michael L. Newman, also informed county officials of the investigation in a Jan. 19 letter to Board of Supervisors President Mike Wasserman.
The probe announced this week is not a criminal investigation, and does not name Smith.
“Public safety is built on trust,” said Bonta in a video announcement. “When communities feel they are treated fairly and equitably by law enforcement, it increases trust and that in turn contributes to increased public safety.”
“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,” Bonta said.
“Public institutions are subject to public oversight,” he said. “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.”
In response to the attorney general's announcement, Smith said, "I have always welcomed any external review of the Sheriff's Office and we will immediately open all records. I have great confidence in the Attorney General's Office and I believe they will provide the expertise for a fair and impartial investigation. We remain focused on our mission, which is to continue to provide the highest level of public safety services.”
Smith had been silent since August amid the allegations and related political firestorm. At that time, she told supervisors that the blame for conditions in county jails, especially with regard to the treatment of mentally ill inmates, rested with state and county officials, not the sheriff or her department.
Newman made it clear in the letter to Wasserman that the focus of the attorney general investigation will be broader than the jail, constituting a deep dive into all aspects of the sheriff’s office.
In his statement this week, he wrote, on behalf of Bonta, that state law authorizes the attorney general to conduct “civil investigations into whether a law enforcement agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating state or federal law.”
A press release from Bonta’s office said that “the attorney general has made no determinations at this time about specific complaints or allegations or about the agency’s policies and practices.”
It encouraged “anyone with information relevant to this investigation to contact the California Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section." Members of the public may also send information to the California Department of Justice in Spanish and other languages.
In the weeks ahead, attorneys and special agents at the California Department of Justice will be interviewing community members and organizations, local officials, oversight entities, the sheriff’s office, individual officers and others, according to this week’s announcement.
“If our investigation determines there is no pattern or practice of wrongdoing, we will close the investigation and work with the sheriff’s office and the county to identify and implement recommendations for strengthening public trust that has been eroded over the years,” Newman said in the letter to Wasserman. “However, if our investigation determines that there is a pattern or practice of conduct depriving any person of the rights conferred by the state or federal Constitutions or state statutory laws,” he said his office will seek to remedy any and all violations of law as expeditiously as possible.”
The letter asked the county to “immediately place a ‘litigation hold’ on all potentially relevant documents or other physical evidence for the duration of this investigation and any resulting litigation, or until the parties otherwise reach a resolution.”
This includes “any and all materials, including communications (external and internal), related to the following: the Sheriff’s Office’s use-of-force policies, training, practices, and records; the hiring, firing, or promotion of deputies or any other employees; any internal investigations, force reviews, or instances of officer discipline; the recruitment, hiring, firing, promotion, rehiring, or retention of peace officers and staff; any community engagement by the Sheriff’s Office and its personnel; policies, training, practices, and records for the Sheriff’s Office’s public complaint systems; the conditions of confinement, including medical, mental health, and other services, as well as management and staffing of jail facilities; and any and all documents and communications related to complaints or allegations of misconduct, from any source, and any investigations, whether formal or informal, related to those complaints, allegations, and investigations.”
This hold includes, but is not limited to, all memoranda, correspondence, writings, notes, paper files, e-mails (including “cc’s” and “bcc’s”), e-mail attachments, instant messages, text messages, telephone messages, computer files, website data, backup media, photographs, charts, graphs, reports, data, images, maps, drawings, manuals, logs, diaries, calendars, newspaper articles, magazine articles, sound recordings, videotapes, contracts, drafts, agreements, minutes, and other official documents or legal instruments. ESI may be located in a variety of locations, including but not limited to, computers, network and email servers, mobile phone devices such as smartphones, including personal devices, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, memory cards, online storage, external hard drives, tablets, office laptops, personal laptops, offsite storage, vehicle “Black Boxes,” and phone company voice mail records.
Newman warned the county that none of its officers or employees could “alter, destroy, interfile, annotate, remove, or modify any documents relevant to this investigation.”
“The existence of copies elsewhere or identical copies in possession of someone else will not excuse any destruction of documents or other materials. The litigation hold extends to all physical evidence collected and documents prepared, dated, or issued before and after the date of this letter,” Newman wrote.