Friday, August 22, 2014

Court of Appeal Ruling Requires Prosecutors to Review Confidential Police Personnel Files

On August 11, 2014, the California Court of Appeal held in People v. Superior Court prosecutors must review police officers' confidential personnel files to identify information relevant to the defense in a criminal case. This decision places the burden of identifying Brady information on the prosecutor. In addition, it narrows confidentiality protections for officers' personnel files.

This case delivered a blow to officers' confidentiality interests in their personnel records. In Brady, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a rule requiring the prosecution to disclose evidence that is favorable and 'material' to the defense. Such evidence includes past alleged officer misconduct contained in confidential personnel files. California state law provides protections against disclosure of such information in civil or criminal proceedings by court order. Before disclosure, the court must conduct a private 'in camera' review of the officer's personnel file to determine if the information must be provided to the defense.

Public agencies employing peace officers are generally responsible for reviewing personnel files for possible Brady information relevant to the defense. This case places the burden of review on the prosecution.

The Court divided the Brady disclosure process into two "stages." The "first stage" requires prosecutors to have access to confidential personnel records to identify information subject to disclosure. The "second stage" requires the court to conduct a private, in camera review and disclose relevant information to the defense. The Court held Penal Code section 832.7(a) does not preclude prosecutorial access to officer personnel files for Brady purposes. The Court noted that because police are considered part of the "prosecution team," the two agencies can share personnel files without violating personnel file confidentiality laws.

This case has far ranging implications for law enforcement. Unless overturned, prosecutors will be allowed to routinely inspect peace officer's personnel records for Brady purposes and be required to file a Pitchess motion to have Brady material disclosed to the defense. This game changing decision will result in unnecessary disclosures to the prosecution and deprive officers of the ability to challenge. The court decidedly shifted the balancing of interests against officers' privacy rights. Look for this decision to trigger revisions to your local Brady policy. Request to participate in any policy revisions.