Column: California’s high cop sends message to sheriffs statewide: No one is above the legislation


At this level within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Division‘s descent into ignominy, it’s clear to even the informal observer that Sheriff Alex Villanueva isn’t simply keen to play within the mud, he appears to get pleasure from it like a hog in a heatwave.

However with the upcoming election and the quite a few headlines our sheriff generates, the importance of one in every of Villanueva’s current stunts has largely sunk within the mire. Let me pull it again to the highest, as a result of it has huge implications not only for our sheriff, however for sheriffs throughout the state and for individuals who care about felony justice reform.

As my colleague Alene Tchekmedyian reported, Villanueva just lately wrote to California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta asking him to research whether or not county Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and others have been tipped off previous to the Sheriff’s Division serving search warrants on them. Persevering with a long-running hissy match towards any kind of oversight, Villanueva accused L.A. County Inspector Normal Max Huntsman of contacting Kuehl and others the night time earlier than to warn them.

Relying on whom you ask, that search was both a part of an investigation about exposing public corruption or the sheriff abusing his energy to go after political rivals.

It was Bonta’s sudden response that must be garnering extra consideration. Certain, the state’s high cop wrote again in a public letter to Villanueva, I’ll look into the leak.

And whereas I’m at it, I’ll take over the investigation — as a result of I’ve authority over sheriffs.

Bonta ordered Villanueva to show over what he had, and have a seat.

That could be a thunderclap of an announcement as a result of sheriffs routinely assert that they’re answerable solely to voters, and former attorneys common have hardly ever argued in any other case. And regardless of years of attempting, legislators have did not move any significant reforms to rein within the energy of sheriffs.

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

However Bonta — a felony justice reformer who grew up dwelling in a trailer on the United Farm Staff compound in La Paz within the Central Valley, only a stone’s throw from Cesar Chavez’s home — sees it in a different way. He doesn’t assume sheriffs are above the legislation or arbiters of it, and he instructed me Wednesday that oversight and accountability are essential to rebuilding the belief that legislation enforcement all over the place sorely lacks. In his letter, he asserted that the California Structure provides him the authority to step into any investigation, even over a sheriff.

“We don’t shrink back from it after we really feel it’s applicable to get entangled,” he mentioned.

Although Bonta declined to speak in regards to the Los Angeles fiasco straight, he mentioned this case contained a “very distinctive set of circumstances,” and that it “made sense for us to take the whole case.” A part of that logic was as a result of Villanueva had beforehand recused himself from the investigation, which means he “acknowledges that he must be recused from any associated issues,” Bonta wrote.

I’m fairly certain Villanueva didn’t see that one coming — and the truth that Villanueva threw open the door and invited Bonta in, solely to search out himself pushed out to the porch, has multiple authorized professional laughing.

The state legal professional common hardly ever takes over particular person investigations from native legislation enforcement. It’s not unusual to see so-called “sample and apply” investigations that take a look at complete departments largely from a civil rights perspective. However cherry-picking a single probe — that’s treading on one other cop’s territory, and it’s not one thing to be finished calmly.

It’s so uncommon that the one instance of it taking place beforehand that specialists might cite to me was in 1981, when then-Los Angeles Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp tried to drop homicide fees towards Angelo Buono, one in every of two males accused of raping, torturing and murdering 10 girls within the Hillside Strangler case.

It was one of many highest-profile trials in Los Angeles in an period when serial killers appeared insanely frequent in Southern California. However Van de Kamp thought that the prosecution was a loser as a result of it rested on the unreliable testimony of Buono’s cousin and confederate, Kenneth Bianchi. Van de Kamp requested the choose to dismiss the homicide fees, as a substitute planning on going after lesser intercourse crime counts.

The choose refused, and then-state Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian stepped in, took over the prosecution and received.

Deukmejian went on to be elected governor in 1982. Van de Kamp misplaced his personal bid for governor in 1990, with the case dogging him till he was compelled to publicly admit he made a mistake.

The one different occasion I might discover when an legal professional common got here near poaching a specific investigation was in 2004, when then-Atty. Gen. Invoice Lockyer thought-about taking over the prosecution of a cop killer from Kamala Harris, then the district legal professional in San Francisco. Harris had declined to hunt the demise penalty, prompting the union and the officer’s household to make the request. Lockyer reviewed the case, making appreciable political noise, however in the end declined to take it away from Harris.

Whereas the transfer to hijack the Sheriff Division’s investigation is singular, it’s not stunning. If Villanueva had been in a position to see previous his personal ego, he might need predicted this. Bonta has been one of the crucial lively attorneys common in current instances with regards to oversight.

When he was within the Meeting, previous to Gov. Gavin Newsom appointing him to his position in 2021, Bonta helped writer a invoice that gave the legal professional common higher energy to intervene in officer-involved shootings by requiring them to conduct impartial investigations each time a legislation enforcement officer kills an unarmed particular person. His workplace is presently two dozen instances throughout the state, together with the current deaths of Luis Herrera and Marcos Maldonado in Los Angeles — although none of these inquiries have concluded.

He’s additionally reviewed instances that have been in any other case at authorized useless ends.

Only a few months after taking workplace, Bonta examined the deadly capturing of a developmentally disabled man and the wounding of his dad and mom in a Corona Costco in 2019 by a then-LAPD off-duty officer.

A Riverside grand jury declined to cost Los Angeles Police Division officer Salvador Sanchez, although Sanchez was fired from the LAPD after the incident. Bonta charged Sanchez with voluntary manslaughter and assault with a semiautomatic firearm in a case that’s nonetheless pending.

“Being licensed to hold a gun doesn’t imply you’re not accountable for the way you utilize it. Irrespective of who you might be, no one is above the legislation,” Bonta mentioned on the time.

He’s additionally stepped in to provide one other take a look at how native district attorneys dealt with the police killings of Sean Monterrosa in Vallejo and Oscar Grant in Oakland. Each killings are high-profile legislation enforcement shootings that left their communities indignant and mistrustful — Grant’s mom requested for Bonta’s assist.

Within the Monterrosa demise, Bonta mentioned his determination to intervene was as a result of the “Solano County District Lawyer unilaterally abdicated her accountability because the elected district legal professional and refused to conduct a overview.”

This exhibits Bonta isn’t afraid to go after legislation enforcement if he thinks it’s warranted. I requested him what different sheriffs throughout the state ought to make of him taking on this investigation from Villanueva, essentially the most highly effective sheriff in California, and arguably within the nation.

He mentioned they’ll “draw no matter conclusions they want. I feel our actions converse for themselves.”

I hope that’s the warning it looks as if. As a result of Villanueva isn’t the one cowboy-hat sporting Wild West sheriff working unfastened in California — and the reality is their Doc Holliday act has by no means been as charming as they assume.

And although Villanueva has run his marketing campaign because the hardest Latino on the town, it seems a Filipino child from the Central Valley could have the larger badge.

Extra importantly, he has the heart to wield it.

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SACRAMENTO —  At this level within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Division‘s descent into ignominy, it’s clear to even the informal observer that Sheriff Alex Villanueva isn’t simply keen to play within the mud, he appears to get pleasure from it like a hog in a heatwave. However with the upcoming election and the quite a…