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.