Guilty as charged: California sheriff convicted in concealed carry corruption case

Paul Sakuma

The now-former sheriff of Santa Clara County was convicted on six counts of corruption and willful misconduct by a jury on Thursday, bring a formal end to Laurie Smith’s decades-long tenure as the top cop in the California county. Under the verdict delivered by the jury in the civil trial Smith was removed from office, despite her attempt to avoid punishment by announcing her resignation during jury deliberations. Smith’s attorney argued that her resignation made the potential removal from office a moot point, but the judge overseeing the case refused her attorney’s request to drop the charges, declaring that to do so would allow Smith to escape any formal consequences for her actions.

Amazingly (at least to me), Smith still has her defenders, including one local attorney who thinks the corruption outlined in the trial is no big deal.

Smith was accused of providing concealed carry weapons permits in exchange for political donations or other favors. Accusations were brought by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury in 2021.

“First of all, these aren’t felonies. These are minor indiscretions,” Richard Alexander of Alexander Law Group weighed in. “These are not serious crimes by any stretch of the imagination.”

Alexander isn’t affiliated with the case. He’s an attorney who has practiced in the Bay Area for more than 50 years with experience contributing to the county’s Criminal Justice Advisory Board. He’s also familiar with Smith.

“Laurie Smith has thrived, and more than survive, she has succeeded in a real boys club,” Alexander described. “She did not break through a glass ceiling, she broke through a steel ceiling. And she’s done it for a long, long time.”

You know what else she’s apparently done for a long, long time? Jacked around with people’s ability to protect themselves, even when they were able to document threats against their lives. Far from being a symbol of female empowerment, Smith and her top deputies kept many women who wanted a firearm for self-defense from carrying one, as one of the witnesses who testified about Smith laid out to the jury. Other applicants, who were either personally close to the sheriff or were useful to her re-election campaign, were speedily approved. Sheriff’s boyfriend testifies in concealed carry corruption case, says he was issued permit

Chris Malachowsky, founder of chipmaker Nvidia, testified Monday that when he filled out an application in 2014, he left blank the “good cause” section articulating his need for a CCW permit, which at the time was required by the county and was an essential field used to evaluate who received a license. Malachowsky, who is a strong Smith supporter and donor, got a permit anyway.

Meanwhile, two criminal-defense attorneys with no real ties to or known support of Smith, and who reported serious and violent threats made to their lives, testified about applying for the gun permits in the past decade. They described getting the runaround from the agency, being sent a form response citing the excuse of a huge application backlog, or getting no response despite multiple attempts at follow-up. Sometimes they experienced all three.

One of those attorneys said she applied for the third time last year, only to be stonewalled again. She added that the violent threat she faces from a former spouse  “continues today.” During that same period, Malachowsky testified, he never used his CCW permit, and let it lapse because he “didn’t like the responsibility of it.”

No big deal. Just a “minor indiscretion.” Certainly not a violation of anyone’s fundamental right to bear arms in self-defense, right?

Whatever ceilings Smith may have broken in her career have been more than offset by the breaking of her oath of office, and the guilty verdict returned by the jury isn’t the end of the story. Two of her former top deputies face criminal charges in connection with the same scandal, and District Attorney Jeff Rosen says the trials against former Undersheriff Rick Sung and Captain James Jensen will begin in the next few months.

Now that a jury in Smith’s civil trial has convicted her on all charges though, I wonder if Rosen will offer the pair a chance to plead guilty to lesser charges. I hope that’s not the case, because despite the claims of guys like Richard Alexander, the type of corruption and graft documented by prosecutors and witnesses in Santa Clara County aren’t minor annoyances but serious misconduct that jeopardized the safety and wellbeing of an untold number of residents. Not only were those who did apply routinely left in limbo, the fact that carry permits were so rarely issued by Smith’s office meant that many residents never even bothered to apply knowing they’d be turned down.

Even though California’s “may issue” statute is off the books thanks to the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision, lawmakers are likely to give the state’s sheriffs the authority to approve or deny permits based on subjective determinations of “good moral character” or “suitability” when they return to Sacramento in just a few weeks. That will allow for continued corruption of the right to bear arms, and if prosecutors decide to cut Sung and Jensen a sweetheart plea deal it will send a message to law enforcement that violating the fundamental rights of residents is, as Richard Alexander believes, not a serious crime at all.