Laurie Smith was the first woman ever elected sheriff in California, and has served as Santa Clara County Sheriff since 1998, but just resigned in disgrace as a corruption trial was likely to force her out anyway.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has been with the Sheriff’s Office since before women were even allowed to serve as sheriff’s deputies. Her bio notes that in 1973, “she was sworn in as a Deputy Sheriff Matron, then the only full peace officer status position available to women.” She rose up the ranks to where, in 1998, she became the first woman elected sheriff anywhere in California history, and has served as Santa Clara County Sheriff for the last 24 years.
It may have been a little too long. Hoodline reports that Smith abruptly retired/resigned effective immediately on Monday, against the backdrop of a corruption trial involving pay-to-play bribes for concealed carry permits where deputies received sports tickets and iPads (and Smith herself got campaign donations), and obstruction of justice in cases involving police brutality and jail guard misconduct.
Smith merely submitted a one-sentence letter to the county’s board of supervisors Monday saying, “This letter is to notify you of my retirement effective immediately, Monday, October 31, 2022.” But it’s also kind of a tell that on the same day, her attorney argued that since she no longer was sheriff, all of the charges against her should be dropped. Smith had already announced her retirement back in March, though planned to serve until this January, when a newly elected sheriff took office.
The Bay Area News Group makes a keen observation: “Ironically, Smith could have resolved the case without trial had she taken up prosecutors on their offer to drop the corruption accusations if she resigned by July 15, but she pushed ahead,” that paper reports.
There may have been something at stake with Smith's pension — though the Mercury News reported Monday that because this was a civil trial, and not a criminal one, Smith would not lose her pension even if she were convicted.
Smith faced election six times and retained the sheriff's office in each of those elections, but the latest string of scandals began in 2018, the year of her most recent reelection. The Sheriff's Office was implicated in a 2018 in-custody injury case in which a mentally unstable inmate suffered brain damage after not being restrained during a van ride between the Elmwood Jail and the county's Main Jail's psychiatric unit. Smith was accused, as part of this corruption trial, of shutting down an Internal Affairs investigation into the case.
Other charges related to improper gifts and campaign donations, and some apparent quid pro quo between donors and the department involving concealed-carry gun permits.
It’s unclear what will happen with Smith’s trial. San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Nancy Fineman has not issued a ruling as of Tuesday morning, though is expected to hear the matter Wednesday. Meanwhile at the sheriff’s office itself, Undersheriff Ken Binder takes over as interim sheriff for the time being, and on Election Day next Tuesday, voters will choose between retired Palo Alto police chief Robert “Bob” Jonsen and retired sheriff’s captain Kevin Jensen to fill the seat.
Top image: Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith addresses the media during a press conference near the site of a mass shooting at a Valley Transportation Authority light-rail yard on May 26, 2021 in San Jose, California. A VTA employee opened fire at the yard, with preliminary reports indicating nine people dead including the gunman. (Photo by Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)