Monday, November 24, 2014

Ninth Circuit's Opinion Granting Distress Damages in Officer-Involved Shootings Stands

On October 6, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court denied review of the City's appeal of Chaudhry v. City of Los Angeles. This upholds the Ninth Circuit's ruling allowing pre-death pain and suffering damages in section 1983 claims when the death was caused by a violation of federal law.

In Chaudhry, a jury found a police officer's shooting was unjustified despite the officer testifying the suspect lunged at him with a knife. The jury awarded $700,000 to the suspect's family for wrongful death and $1 million to the suspect's estate for pain and suffering based on an excessive force claim under 42 U.S.C. section 1983. California law prevents a decedent's estate from recovering damages for the decedent's pre-death pain and suffering. Federal law is silent on the issue.

The Ninth Circuit found California's limitation on damages conflicted with section 1983's goals of compensation and deterrence. The Ninth Circuit ruled preventing pre-death pain and suffering damages to a decedent's estate makes it more economically advantageous for the defendant to kill rather than injure. The court held the state-law limitation on damages does not apply in section 1983 claims if the death was caused by a violation of federal law. This ruling greatly increases potential liability for section 1983 defendants.

Monday, November 17, 2014

New Jersey Superior Court Rules Police Dashboard Video Recordings are Public Records

A New Jersey Superior Court judge ruled in two separate cases police dashboard video recordings are public records subject to disclosure under New Jersey's Open Public Records Act. In his most recent decision, the judge ordered the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office to disclose a police dash-camera video depicting a police officer's use of a police dog during an arrest. The court found the video was not an exempt "criminal investigatory record," and disclosure did not violate the motorist's privacy rights.

The video shows an officer's use of a police dog during a vehicle stop arrest. The officer has been charged with aggravated assault and official misconduct. Plaintiff John Paff requested a copy of the video from the Prosecutor's Office on May 20, 2014. The Prosecutor's Office denied Paff's request arguing the videos were exempt from disclosure because they were criminal investigatory records.

The court ruled the Prosecutor's Office must disclose the video. He found the "ongoing investigation exception" does not apply because the video was made before the investigation began. This exception does not retroactively render public documents confidential once an investigation starts. Also, since police agencies require regular recording of law enforcement activities, the video constitutes a government record rather than a "criminal investigatory record." And disclosure does not harm the motorist's privacy rights because the incident occurred in a public place, and her face cannot be seen in the video.

The Ocean County Prosecutor's office plans to appeal the rulings. Releasing such videos may taint the jury pool preventing defendants from receiving a fair trial. In addition, the outcome of these cases may spur litigation under public records laws in other states.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hearing Officers Must Exercise Independent Judgment When Reviewing Discipline Cases

The California Court of Appeal in Quintanar v. County of Riverside held that hearing officers must exercise their independent judgment when reviewing department discipline.

Quintanar is a Deputy in the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. The Department demoted Quintanar after he allegedly used excessive force. Pursuant to the procedures outlined in the MOU, Quintanar filed an administrative appeal which triggered a hearing before an impartial hearing officer. The MOU gave the hearing officer broad review powers. This included the ability to hold a full-scale evidentiary hearing where the hearing officer had to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law. Crucially, the MOU allowed the hearing officer to sustain, modify, or rescind the department imposed discipline.

The Court of Appeal concluded the MOU required the hearing officer to use his independent judgment in reviewing the discipline. The court seized on the broad hearing power and the ability to modify the discipline to justify its holding. While the hearing officer could consider the department's discipline as evidence, the hearing officer was not bound by those recommendations.

Many MOUs across the state contain similar language to the provisions in this case. In most cases, the MOU will not explicitly require the hearing officer to exercise independent judgment. However, if the MOU allows the hearing officer to "sustain, modify, or rescind" the department's discipline or if it allows the hearing officer to submit findings of fact or conclusions of law, courts may now require the hearing officer to exercise his or her independent judgment in reviewing the discipline.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Supreme Court Grants Review, Stay in Controversial Peace Officer Personnel Records Case

The California Supreme Court granted review and a stay today in the controversial Court of Appeal decision in People v. Superior Court (Johnson). The Court of Appeal ruled prosecutors must review police officers' confidential personnel files to identify information relevant to the defense in a criminal case. This decision delivered a blow to officers' confidentiality interests in their personnel records. The California Supreme Court will decide whether a prosecutor must file a Pitchess motion before accessing peace officer personnel files to search for Brady material that may be subject to disclosure to a criminal defendant.

The Court of Appeal previously considered whether the prosecution is entitled to direct access to peace officer personnel files to search for Brady material. To answer this question, the Court of Appeal considered the interplay between Brady v. Maryland, which requires the prosecution to disclose evidence material to the defense and Pitchess discovery procedures, which hold officer personnel records are confidential absent discovery under Evidence Code section 1043.

The Court of Appeal divided the Brady disclosure process into two "stages." The "first stage" requires prosecutors to have access to confidential personnel records to identify Brady material 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 of Appeal found Section 832.7 does not preclude prosecutors' 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 confidential information. In coming to this conclusion, the Court of Appeal disagreed with People v. Gutierrez, and its progeny, which held the prosecution could not access officer personnel files absent a motion under section 1043. Gutierrez, following a prior California Supreme Court case City of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Brandon), found the statutory Pitchess procedures implement Brady rather than undercut it, because a defendant who cannot meet the less stringent Pitchess standard cannot establish Brady materiality. Rather than following this precedent, the Court of Appeal ruled prosecutors may conduct a preliminary inspection of officers' personnel files. But if the prosecutor identifies Brady material, the prosecutor must file a Pitchess motion before disclosing it to the defense.

This case will be very important for law enforcement throughout the state. The Court of Appeal's decision has already been used by public agencies and courts to circumvent the Pitchess process. The California Supreme Court should overturn this misguided decision and restore Pitchess. A favorable Supreme Court decision will protect officers' privacy rights and prevent unnecessary disclosures of confidential personnel information.