As predicted, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, the California Supreme Court upheld the legality of “Brady tips” by law enforcement agencies to prosecutors when an officer is potential witness in a pending prosecution. It must be noted, however, that the Court’s decision did not change the fact that when an officer’s identifying information (i.e. name) is placed on a Brady list, that fact and information as to why the officer was placed on the Brady list is confidential by law under Penal Code section 832.7(a).
The long-awaited, unanimous decision was issued today and answered the question of whether a law enforcement agency may disclose to the prosecution the name and identifying number of an officer and that the officer may have relevant exonerating and impeaching material in that officer’s confidential personnel file. The Court ultimately held that a law enforcement agency does not violate Penal Code section 832.7(a) if they advise the prosecution that a pending, peace officer prosecution witness may have relevant exonerating or impeachment material in that officer’s confidential personnel file.
The Court’s decision is rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that prohibits the states from denying any person due process of law. Based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a fair trial, the United States Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland (1963) 373 U.S. 83, held that prosecutors must disclose to the defense evidence that is “favorable” to the accused and “material” to guilt or punishment. Thus, if the evidence helps the defense or hurts the prosecution (i.e. it impeaches a prosecution witness) and if there is a reasonable probability that the failure to disclose such evidence could affect the result of the trial, the prosecution team has a constitutional obligation to provide that evidence to the defense.
This case began in 2016 when the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department advised approximately 300 deputies that the Department was going to provide their names to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office because their personnel files contained potential exculpatory and/or impeachment material. The Association for Los Angles Deputy Sheriffs (“ALADS”) filed a writ of mandate and a complaint seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief to prohibit the Department from disclosing the names of its members. The trial court held that although the identifying information of officers is confidential, the Department is not barred from disclosing that an individual is on the Department’s Brady list when that deputy is a potential witness in a pending criminal prosecution. After ALADS appealed the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal held that absent a Pitchess motion the Department cannot even disclose to a prosecutor the name of an officer who may have Brady material in their personnel file.
The crux of the problem with the Court of Appeal decision was that without Brady tips a prosecutor would be unable to fulfill their constitutional Brady obligation to defendants. In fact, in their previous decision regarding confidentiality in peace officer personnel files, the same California Supreme Court praised Brady tips as a method of accomplish a workable balance between the confidentiality of peace officer personnel records and the fundamental due process rights of defendants.
Mastagni Holstedt and the Berry Wilkinson Law Group were honored to file an amicus brief in this appeal on behalf of PORAC and the PORAC Legal Defense Fund asking the Court to detemine whether S.B. 1421 should be applied retroactively. Unfortunately, the Court declined to address the retroactivity of SB 1421, the California Public Records Act exception to Pitchess which has been codified in Penal Code section 832.7(b).