Thursday, July 30, 2015

California Public Safety Labor Blog Nominated for Best Legal Blog Award

Mastagni Holstedt, APC's California Public Safety Labor Blog has been nominated for the award of Best Legal Blog by the Expert Institute. Currently, the contest is accepting nominations for blogs for the contest. The more nominations the blog receives the greater its chance of making it to the voting rounds. We need your support in nominating our blog for this contest. Please visit the Expert Institute's website and nominate this blog for consideration. The deadline to submit nominations is August 21, 2015. Your support is what allows us to provide top quality legal information to thousands of public servants in California.

The Expert Institute is a New York based networking legal site that connects practitioners to expert witnesses. Their company is founded around the 21st century ideal that knowledge is power.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Law Allowing Police to Search Hotel Registries

On June 22, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court held in City of Los Angeles v. Patel that police searches can no longer be conducted on hotel and motel registries without a warrant absent consent or exigent circumstances. The case considered the constitutionality of Los Angeles Municipal Code 41.49. The Code stated all hotel and motel operators shall make their records available to any officer of the Los Angeles Police Department for inspection at any time. If operators failed to turn over these records, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. A group of motel operators and lodging associations challenged the law, asserting such searches were unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately held searches without warrants of hotel and motel registries are unconstitutional absent consent or exigent circumstances. The Court stated the subject of a hotel registry search must be afforded the opportunity to obtain pre-compliance review before a neutral decision maker.

The Supreme Court outlined several ways an officer may search hotel registries absent a special need or consent from the operator. First, an officer could serve the hotel operator with an administrative subpoena, allowing the hotel operator an opportunity to challenge the subpoena in front of a judge before suffering any penalties for refusing to comply. An officer also could apply for a warrant. Additionally, if officers fear the destruction of the records while awaiting an available judge, they are permitted to guard the registry until a hearing could occur.

Monday, July 6, 2015

California Supreme Court Clarifies Pitchess Process Protects Officer Privacy

On July 6, 2015, the California Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal to protect the confidentiality of peace officers' personnel files.  In People v. The Superior Court of San Francisco County, the Supreme Court held District Attorneys offices must file Pitchess motions to review personnel files, ending attempts by some DAs offices to have unfettered access to officers' private information.

Evidence Code section 1043 and 1045 regulate access to peace officers' personnel files in California. The sections make peace officers' personnel files preemptively confidential, but permit parties that have a reason to believe the personnel records contain information material to a case to file what's typically called a Pitchess motion, to gain access to relevant parts of a file.  If party makes a preliminary showing, a judge reviews potentially relevant portions of the file and decides if they are material to the case and must be turned over.

This process applies in criminal cases, but also civil and administrative cases.  In criminal cases, another feature of this process is a prosecutor's duties under Brady v. Maryland.  Under that case, a prosecutor must disclose information that may help a criminal defendant in court.

In San Francisco, the Police Department had a Brady policy that took into account officer privacy and prosecutors' Brady obligations.  Under the policy, the Department had a Brady committee consider potential Brady issues, permitted comment by the affected employee, and made a recommendation to Chief, who decided whether to inform the DA.  The DA then had to file a Pitchess motion to access relevant portions of the officer's file.

But recently, some DAs claimed their Brady duty is so broad that they are entitled to unfettered access to peace officers' personnel files so they can decide what to give criminal defendants.  In this case, the trial court and the Court of Appeal agreed with this conclusion.

The Court of Appeal held prosecutors could access peace officer personnel records without filing a Pitchess motion for two reasons.  First, it concluded disclosing peace officers’ personnel records to the DA did not count as a “disclosure” within the meaning of the statute.  Second, the Court interpreted an exception to the Pitchess process about “investigations” to apply any time a criminal defendant filed a Pitchess motion.  The Supreme Court disagreed with this reasoning.

The Supreme Court noted the Pitchess process balances officers’ privacy with the needs of prosecutors to perform their duties under Brady.  It found the limited exception allowing direct access showed the Legislature did not intend DAs to have direct access under normal circumstances.  Second, Supreme Court disagreed the argument a Pitchess motion triggers a DA’s right to investigate an officer.  The Court defended peace officers noting, “A police officer does not become the target of an investigation merely by being a witness in a criminal case.”  The Supreme Court explained the exception applied, instead, to cases where the DA needs to do a criminal investigation of the officer’s own conduct.

Thus, the Supreme Court held, "the prosecution does not have unfettered access to confidential personnel records of police officers who are potential witnesses in criminal cases. Rather, it must follow the same procedures that apply to criminal defendants, i.e., make a Pitchess motion, in order to seek information in those records."