Concealed-carry corruption: California sheriff indicted for selling permits

What happens when public officials get the authority to act capriciously and arbitrarily to determine whether citizens can exercise their rights? Eventually, some of them explore all of the wisdom contained in the axiom “power corrupts.” A civil grand jury indicted the sheriff of Santa Clara County, California yesterday on several counts of corruption, mainly involving the abuse of Laurie Smith’s may-issue authority for concealed carry permits.

A criminal grand jury may not be far behind at this point either:

The Grand Jury leveled seven counts of willful corruption or misconduct in office against the Sheriff, mostly stemming from allegations she leveraged her authority to issue concealed carry weapons (CCW) permits to illegally secure campaign contributions or favors from “VIP” applicants. One count alleges that Smith refused to cooperate with civilian jail monitors probing a 2018 incident that left mentally ill inmate Andrew Hogan with permanent brain damage after he injured himself during a jail transport.

“If you want to get a CCW to carry a firearm, you should be treated fairly and equally,” Rosen said. “One of those standards cannot be are you supporting the Sheriff or the Sheriff’s reelection. And that’s what this bribery investigation was about.”

Last year, the District Attorney’s Office secured criminal indictments against two high-ranking members of Smith’s inner circle within the Sheriff’s Office, in addition to a collection of security executives and prominent community members for their alleged roles in the CCW pay-to-play scandal.

Three of those defendants have pleaded guilty and are now cooperating with investigators. Two of the cases have been dismissed, and five other defendants, including Sheriff’s Captain James Jensen and Undersheriff Rick Sung, entered not guilty pleas earlier this year and their cases remain ongoing.

How much risk does Smith face from the criminal probe? She got called to testify in the other cases and took the Fifth. That’s certainly her right and likely a very smart move, if for no other reason than to test whether prosecutors might trade immunity for whatever testimony Smith might give. Clearly, though, Smith is the ultimate target here, and from what is seen thus far for good reason. Nonetheless, having the top law enforcement official in the county taking the Fifth is not a good look, not for the county or for Smith.

My friend and VIP Gold chat partner Cam Edwards is pleasantly surprised at the very existence of this investigation. He also diagnoses why corruption flourished in the first place:

I’m somewhat surprised but very pleased that a grand jury in one of the most liberal areas of California recognized the wrong in both providing special access to the right to bear arms to those who can afford to pay for it and in showing such contempt for everyday citizens that she didn’t even have the courtesy to officially tell them she was rejecting their applications.

Of course, the easiest way to ensure that the corruption alleged in Santa Clara County can’t happen elsewhere is to simply adopt a “shall issue” process for concealed carry license (I’d prefer Constitutional Carry, to be honest, but this is California we’re talking about). Remove the authority for the sheriff to approve or deny carry applications for the most subjective of reasons, and you get rid of their ability to engage in the type of pay-to-play bribes and under-the-table deals alleged in the grand jury’s indictment.

As William Pitt the Elder once observed, “unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.” Smith appears particular oriented toward corruption anyway, given the breadth of accusations in the indictment, but that’s precisely why our system of government normally precludes such unchecked authority — especially over the exercise of an enumerated constitutional right. Sheriffs should not have the power to arbitrarily grant or deny that exercise, which is why most states have passed “shall issue” laws that require the approval of carry permits unless the applicant is barred for clear and established reasons.

Cam is skeptical that the progressive-dominated state legislature in California will pass a shall-issue law to preclude any more corruption around carry permits. I share his skepticism, but California has 58 counties, all of which have sheriffs exercising this same unchecked authority. Are they sure that Laurie Smith’s the only sheriff who exploited this power for personal gain? Do they want to take that risk?