Deputy sheriffs guarding jails in Stanislaus County are suing for the right to carry concealed guns off duty without permits.
Patrol deputies and state prison guards don’t have to jump through paperwork hoops and pay permit fees, says the lawsuit, which asks a judge to give custodial deputies the same courtesy.
The issue has been cited in Sheriff Adam Christianson’s re-election campaign against Deputy Tom Letras, who says department morale is low.
Custodial and patrol deputies belong to different labor unions, have been on opposite sides of previous legal battles, and historically have not issued unified endorsements. In Christianson’s first successful re-election bid four years ago, custodial deputies supported him, while patrol deputies endorsed his opponent, Rob Jackson, who since has become police chief in Turlock.
This time, a difference of a few votes among union membership swung patrol deputies’ support to Christianson, while custodial deputies decided not to issue an endorsement. In a meeting with Letras and Modesto Bee editors, Christianson said custodial deputies were sore at him for not bowing to union demands on the concealed-carry issue.
The lawsuit says applying for permits, paying fees and renewing every four years “places an undue burden on the custodial deputies.”
Also, they “must face former inmates and inmates’ associates away from (jails), in their communities and at their local establishments,” a union grievance says, suggesting jail guards should have the same ability to defend themselves and their families off the job as others who work with dangerous criminals.
“I don’t think they should be treated differently on this issue,” said Marion Cruz, a Sacramento attorney representing the Stanislaus County Deputy Sheriffs Association, on Monday. “They require the same protection.”
Deputies working in area lockups are encountering increasingly violent inmates because of realignment, which shifted some responsibility from state prisons to county jails.
“We don’t necessarily disagree” with that rationale, said County Counsel John Doering, “and the sheriff has been more than willing to give (custodial deputies) permits” to carry concealed weapons. However, state legislators have classified jail guards differently from prison guards and patrol deputies, and state attorney general opinions have backed that up, he said.
In a 2012 email to a union member, Christianson said most sheriffs in California do not issue permits for concealed weapons to jail guards, as he does. He said he was “uncomfortable” issuing cards identifying jail guards as not requiring such permits, as requested by the union, because no other California sheriff was doing so.
When the union member, in a response, asked Christianson “to pioneer this and hopefully pave the way and make it a state practice,” the sheriff replied, “I’m not going to be the ‘pioneer’ until there’s clear and unambiguous language that permits me to do so.”
Christianson used to waive the permit fees for custodial deputies, but ceased doing so because “it could potentially be viewed as gifting of public funds,” which is illegal. The sheriff told Bee editors that the union sued after he stopped waiving the fees.
This fiscal year’s county budget lists 206 custodial sheriff positions, although some are vacant.
The Stanislaus Sworn Deputies Association, which represents patrol deputies, has 144 members.
Concealed-carry permits were a big issue four years ago, when Christianson reversed policy and began issuing hundreds more to regular people. The surge has not since unleashed wanton gun violence, he said.
“It’s an issue about law-abiding citizens’ right to defend themselves,” Christianson said, “in a world where (officers) can’t be everywhere at once.”
Letras said he has encouraged several family members to obtain gun permits, and they have.
The custodial deputies’ lawsuit is headed for trial Sept. 9 in Stanislaus Superior Court.
Sample ballots for the June 3 election were sent to voters Friday, and absentee ballots should be mailed later this week.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.