Thursday, December 1, 2011

Court of Appeal Recognizes Corrections Professionals' Special Expertise

In Ochoa v. Superior Court (2011) 199 Cal.App.4th 1274, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled superior courts must consider inmates' rights to view confidential information to challenge parole denials on a case-by-case basis and directed the court to consult corrections professionals to help it decide what the inmate's attorney could receive. The case went on appeal after a superior court judge ordered a warden to choose between producing unredacted copies of confidential information to a prisoner or opposing prisoner's petition without relying on confidential information. The Court rejected such a blanket rule and acknowledged corrections professionals have a special role to play in determining why records should be confidential.

In reaching its decision, the Court observed:

[Q]uestions of confidentiality are complex and can only be made by trained, experienced correctional authorities knowledgeable about the inmate in question, the entire content of his file (not just the contested documents the court reviews), prison life in general, morality and ethics of the prison setting, prison relationships, and the rehabilitative process.  In many cases the reasons for confidentiality may not spring from the face of the document but may be based on other factors in the inmate's file or other conditions in the institution, or a psychological factor that would require expert analysis to appreciate.’ ... ‘Such a hearing would allow the custodian of records ... to explain the significance of the documents and the reasons for their being withheld.  Anything less would have the court acting in a vacuum, unable to obtain or use the factual tools which are essential to an informed judgment.’

As a result, the Court of Appeal ordered the superior court to set an in camera hearing with corrections professionals to determine how much, if any, of the confidential files could be turned over to the inmate's attorney.