California’s attorney general seeks oversight of sheriffs

At this point, with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department dove in shame, it’s clear to even the casual observer that Sheriff Alex Villanueva isn’t just ready to play in the mud, he seems to be enjoying it like a pig in a heat wave .

But with the elections looming and the numerous headlines our sheriff is generating, the significance of one of Villanueva’s recent stunts has largely bogged down. Let me bring it back to the top because it’s having a huge impact not just on our sheriff, but on sheriffs across the state and those who care about criminal justice reform.

As my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian reported, Villanueva recently wrote to California Atty. General Rob Bonta asked him to investigate whether District Superintendent Sheila Kuehl and others were tipped off before the Sheriff’s Department served them search warrants. Villanueva continued his long-standing hissing fit against any sort of oversight, accusing LA County Inspector General Max Huntsman of contacting Kuehl and others the night before to warn them.

Depending on who you ask, this search was either part of an investigation into public corruption, or the sheriff was abusing his powers to prosecute political rivals.

It was Bonta’s unexpected reaction that should draw more attention. Sure, the state’s top police officer wrote back to Villanueva in a public letter saying I’ll investigate the leak.

And while I’m at it, I’ll handle the investigation – because I have authority over sheriffs.

Bonta ordered Villanueva to hand over his things and take a seat.

That’s a thunderclap of a statement because sheriffs routinely claim they are accountable only to voters, and past attorneys general have rarely argued otherwise. And despite years of effort, lawmakers have failed to pass meaningful reforms to limit sheriffs’ powers.

In fact, some so-called “constitutional sheriffs,” of which there are a handful in California, say they are the de facto law in their territories, even above federal agencies. They embrace far-right ideologies that extremists hope will encourage sheriffs to intervene in upcoming elections.

But Bonta — a criminal justice reformer who grew up in a mobile home on the United Farm Workers’ compound in La Paz in the Central Valley, a stone’s throw from Cesar Chavez’s home — sees it differently. He doesn’t believe sheriffs are above the law or its arbitrators, and he told me Wednesday that oversight and accountability are critical to restoring trust that law enforcement everywhere is sorely lacking. In his letter, he claimed that the California constitution gives him the power to intervene in any investigation, even through a sheriff.

“We don’t shy away from getting involved when we think it’s appropriate,” he said.

Although Bonta declined to speak directly about the Los Angeles fiasco, he said that case contained a “very unique set of circumstances” and that it “made sense for us to take on the entire case.” Part of that logic was that Villanueva had previously withdrawn from the investigation, meaning he “acknowledges that he should be withdrawn from all related matters,” Bonta wrote.

I’m pretty sure Villanueva didn’t see that coming — and the fact that Villanueva threw open the door and invited Bonta in, only to find herself pushed out onto the porch makes more than one legal expert laugh.

The Attorney General’s Office rarely takes over individual investigations from local law enforcement agencies. It is not uncommon for so-called “pattern and practice” investigations to occur, which look at entire departments largely from a civil rights perspective. But picking out a single probe — that’s entering another cop’s territory, and it’s not something to be taken lightly.

It’s so rare that the only example experts could give me was in 1981, when the then-Los Angeles Dist. atty John Van de Kamp sought to have the murder charges dropped against Angelo Buono, one of two men accused of raping, torturing and murdering ten women in the Hillside Strangler case.

It was one of the most well-known trials in Los Angeles at a time when serial killers seemed to be insanely common in Southern California. But Van de Kamp felt the prosecution was a loser because it relied on the unreliable testimony of Buono’s cousin and accomplice Kenneth Bianchi. Van de Kamp urged the judge to drop the murder charge and instead planned to prosecute fewer sex crimes cases.

The judge refused, and then-State Atty. General George Deukmejian stepped in, took the charge, and won.

Deukmejian was elected governor in 1982. Van de Kamp lost his own candidacy for governor in 1990, with the case haunting him until he was forced to publicly admit he had made a mistake.

The only other case I could find when an attorney general came close to poaching a particular investigation was in 2004 when Atty. General Bill Lockyer considered taking over the prosecution of a cop killer from Kamala Harris, the then San Francisco District Attorney. Harris had declined to seek the death penalty, urging the union and the officer’s family to file the motion. Lockyer reviewed the case and made considerable political noise, but ultimately declined to take it from Harris.

While the attempt to hijack the sheriff’s department investigation is unique, it is not surprising. If Villanueva had been able to look past his own ego, he might have predicted that. Bonta has been one of the most active attorney generals of late when it comes to oversight.

While in the assembly, before Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to his role in 2021, Bonta helped draft a bill that would give the attorney general more powers to intervene in shootings involving officers by telling them to do so every time conduct independent investigations A police officer kills an unarmed person. His office is currently reviewing two dozen cases statewide, including the recent deaths of Luis Herrera and Marcos Maldonado in Los Angeles — though none of those investigations have been completed.

He has also reviewed cases that otherwise ended up in legal impasses.

Just months after taking office, Bonta was investigating the fatal shooting of a developmentally disabled man and wounding his parents in a Corona costco in 2019 by a then-LAPD off-duty officer.

A Riverside grand jury declined to indict Los Angeles Police Officer Salvador Sanchez, though Sanchez was fired from the LAPD after the incident. Bonta charged Sanchez with negligent homicide and assault with a semi-automatic firearm in a pending trial.

“Being licensed to carry a gun doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for how you use it. No matter who you are, no one is above the law,” Bonta said at the time.

He’s also stepped in to give another look at how local prosecutors dealt with the police killings of Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo and Oscar Grant in Oakland. Both murders are high-profile law enforcement shootings that left their communities angry and suspicious – Grant’s mother asked for Bonta’s help.

In Monterrosa’s death, Bonta said his decision to intervene was because “the Solano County District Attorney unilaterally relinquished her responsibilities as the elected district attorney and refused to conduct a review.”

This shows that Bonta is not afraid to pursue law enforcement if he deems it warranted. I asked him what other sheriffs across the state would think of him taking over this investigation from Villanueva, the most powerful sheriff in California and arguably the entire country.

He said they can “draw any conclusions they want. I think our actions speak for themselves.”

I hope that’s the warning it seems. Because Villanueva isn’t the only cowboy-hat-wearing Wild West sheriff walking loose in California — and the truth is, their Doc Holliday act has never been as charming as they think.

And though Villanueva has campaigned as the toughest Latino in town, it turns out a Central Valley Filipino boy might have the bigger badge.

More importantly, he has the courage to use it. California’s attorney general seeks oversight of sheriffs

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