OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Wednesday announced a civil rights investigation into the conduct of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office.
According to a press release issued by AG Bonta's office, the investigation will seek to determine whether the sheriff's 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."
Embattled Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has been under local investigation for alleged mismanagement of the county jail and charges of bribery and corruption. Back in December, a civil grand jury filed a declaration in Superior Court accusing Smith of the charges she currently is facing.
The filing accused Smith of seven corruption-related charges including political favors, accepting unlawful gifts, perjury and failing to cooperate with investigating authorities. The accusations were based on the testimony of 65 witnesses.
Last week, Smith waived her right to a speedy trial during a virtual court hearing, an indication she plans to fight the charges.
When asked if he could speak more on the specifics, Bonta said he couldn't get into details due to it being an ongoing investigation. However, he said it relates to conditions of confinement in the county jail and that they would be looking into the use of force and treatment of prisoners.
Bonta said it is clear there is a lack of trust in the county.
"It is time that truth comes to light, and we will use our authority under the California constitution to determine whether the sheriff's office has engaged in a pattern or a practice of violating state and or federal law," Bonta said during a virtual press conference Wednesday. "And, if so, identify and compel the correction of any systemic violations of the communities constitutional and civil rights."
With regard to SCCSO, the Attorney General has made no determinations at this time about specific complaints or allegations or about the agency's policies and practices. The State Attorney General's release did not mention Sheriff Smith by name.
The release noted that the Attorney General is authorized to conduct civil investigations into whether a law enforcement agency has engaged in a pattern or practice of violating state or federal law. As opposed to a criminal investigation into an individual incident or incidents, a pattern or practice investigation typically works to identify and, as appropriate, compel the correction of systemic violations of the constitutional rights of the community at large by a law enforcement agency.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he was disappointed that the investigation was needed, but glad it was happening.
"I wish it hadn't come to this. It shouldn't have come to this," Simitian told KPIX. "I'm just gratified that the Attorney General has stepped up, and the issues will get the attention and oversight, frankly, that they require. This announcement has been a long time coming, but there is still a great deal of work to be done.
Supervisor Otto Lee echoed those sentiments in a statement his office released.
"The urgent need to fix the unacceptable conditions of our county jails and our Sheriff's Office resulted in the Board of Supervisors' unanimous vote to request outside agencies to help us investigate the Sheriff's jail management and several horrific incidents," the statement read in part. "I am thankful that California Attorney General Rob Bonta is taking up this matter and will perform a thorough and in-depth investigation. Action from the state Attorney General's Office will begin to restore trust Santa Clara County residents have for our Sheriff's Department."
In a written statement, Smith responded to the Attorney General's investigation.
"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 said.
Smith has not yet announced if she will run for reelection this year. If she does, there are already three high-profile candidates who have announced their candidacy in the June election.
Several Santa Clara County leaders and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo have previously called on Smith to resign, and in August, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to support a resolution declaring no confidence in Smith.
Attorney General Bonta is asking anyone with information that could help with the investigation to contact his office's civil rights enforcement section.
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