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."