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Complaint Filed Against Sheriff’s Office in Tamario Smith Case

Complaint alleges failure to properly supervise Smith, who died in custody

The death of Tamario Smith, a Santa Cruz County inmate, coincided with Black Lives Matter protests in spring 2020. PHOTO: MAT WEIR

A federal complaint has been filed in the death of Tamario Smith, the 21-year-old who died in custody at the Santa Cruz County Jail on May 10, 2020.  

The complaint for violation of civil rights was filed Jan. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The suit, filed by the Caballero and Gettleman Law Office on behalf of Smith and his family, lists Santa Cruz County, Sheriff Jim Hart and several other county leaders as defendants. 

The complaint lays out 12 allegations against the defendants, including wrongful death and failure to properly supervise Smith and train officers in cases of mental illness, as well as violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.  

The complaint also contends that a month before his death, Harper Medical Group—a California state-contracted company responsible for evaluating whether inmates should be checked into mental hospitals or released—failed to file Smith’s court-ordered paperwork not once, but on three separate occasions. Because of this Smith was not present in court, in person or by video, and his mental capacity was not properly evaluated, the suit alleges. 

“They just completely ignored their entire responsibility,” Jonathan Gettleman says. Not only did the agency fail in its duty, he says, but the repeated failures show a discrepancy in how courts treat state agencies compared to individuals. 

“The court was hesitant to use a power against a state agency that it’s quick to use on individuals,” Gettleman says.  

The Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

On May 10, 2020—Mother’s Day—Smith was discovered facedown in his cell at the downtown Santa Cruz County Jail. He was surrounded by watery fluids and vomit. The autopsy reported his cause of death as cardiac arrest resulting from hyponatremia, or low sodium—an electrolyte imbalance from consuming too much water.

His family and lawyers believe Tamario’s death is the result of negligence, proper oversight failures and systemic problems at the jail.

“Not only was his death preventable, but it was induced by neglect, bad medical advice and unconstitutional conditions of confinement,” Elizabeth Caballero says. “We’re in this for the family and for the community.” 

During his three-month detention at the facility, Smith was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having “severe” schizophrenia, in which he heard voices telling him what to do “every second, every hour, every minute,” according to medical reports obtained by Caballero and Gettleman. The same psychiatrist, Dr. Gregory Katz, concluded Smith was mentally incompetent to stand trial and lacked the capacity to make well-reasoned decisions. 

Weeks prior to his death, Smith was seen twice by medical staff, first complaining of severe headaches and the second time for lack of motor skills in his upper right arm. Both times he was advised to drink more water. 

Smith’s autopsy report also notes an unidentified inmate claims Smith said he was considering drinking cleaning fluid to “clean out his stomach.”

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office says it preserved the contents of Smith’s stomach but is not turning them over to his lawyers, who have secured an independent lab for analysis at UC San Francisco.

“We are hoping this lawsuit will convince them to be cooperative with turning over evidence that is so critical to this case,” Gettleman says. 

The complaint begins a long legal process that could take years. At the same time, Assembly Bill 1185—signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year and taking effect this month—allows for counties to create oversight committees of their respective sheriff’s offices. 

Caballero and Gettleman are currently involved in multiple lawsuits against Santa Cruz County, which they say builds a larger understanding that Smith’s case isn’t isolated but part of a larger systemic problem. Caballero tells Good Times she believes it is imperative for the county to form an oversight committee if local residents are to have any transparency. 

“AB 1185 is not just oversight of the jail but oversight of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the county,” Caballero says. “Allowing the mismanagement of investigations—to the extent one could call them ‘cover-ups’—is intolerable if you look at every single individual who is taken into custody as a person and not just as a criminal.” 

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