A Pitchess motion is a request made to the court to access a law enforcement officer’s personnel information when a party alleges in an affidavit that the officer used excessive force or lied about the events surrounding the defendant’s arrest.
The information provided will include prior incidents of use of force, allegations of excessive force, citizen complaints, and information gathered during the officer’s pre-employment background investigation. The motion’s name comes from the case Pitchess v. Superior Court.
The court granted our request to access the personal files of three Sacramento police officer’s to determine if there are past instances of excessive force or falsification of records.
Pitchess v Superior Court
The story of Pitchess v. Superior Court is somewhat convoluted. The Los Angeles County Sheriff, Peter J. Pitchess, along with members of his administrative staff, are the case’s petitioners, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is the respondent, with César Echeverría as the real party in interest. Sheriff Pitchess had sought a writ of mandate to compel the Superior Court to quash its subpoena duces tecum, requiring for Pitchess’s office to produce documents for a trial in which Echeverría was named as defendant. The defendant was then being charged of four felony counts of assaulting four sheriff’s deputies. However, immediately following the incident, he was in an intensive care unit, and the officers themselves had sustained no serious injuries.
Attorney, Miguel F. García, wished to obtain evidence from the Sheriff’s Office on records of complaints by the public about the propensity of the deputies to use excessive force. The Sheriff’s Office had flatly refused to provide such documents. García had then convinced a court to issue a subpoena for them, and the Sheriff’s Office, in the form of Sheriff Pitchess, petitioned the Court of Appeals to hold a hearing to have the subpoena quashed.
The Court found, however, that although such records could be classified as discoverable by García, they had to contain complaints that were sustained by the police department itself before they could be provided. In other words, the police department must have a record of a deputy’s propensity for or acts of abuse that were substantiated by the department itself.
García then petitioned the State Supreme Court to uphold the subpoena, which it did in a 7-0 ruling.
A defendant’s right to information about alleged officer misconduct or dishonesty thus providing information for witness impeachment has since been established by statute in California in sections 1043 to 1047 of the California Evidence Code.
Pitchess Motion Procedure
The motion can be made by a criminal defendant to discover complaints made against a police officer, and the investigation of those complaints, such that they are contained in the officer’s personnel records. The motions can be made in a California Superior Court under California Evidence Code 1043-1046. Notwithstanding the broad nature of the discovery that the associated court rule and statute provide, getting records can be problematic.
Elements of a Pitchess Motion
A defendant must do the following:
- Identify the case in which the records are being sought, which is easily satisfied by simply referencing the case number.
- Attach a full set of the police reports or at least those portions of the police report that relate to the Pitchess motion.
- Identify which officer or officers whose records are sought and which government agency has custody of the records.
- Describe, via affidavit or declaration, the records and explain why the records are relevant.
- Prove there is “good cause” to release the records.*
*Explaining why good cause exists, and why the records are relevant often discloses a defense lawyer’s strategy in a criminal case. Thus, courts will allow a defense attorney to file this portion of the motion under seal so that only the judge can review it. The defendant must also prove that the agency that has custody of the records has received notice of the motion.
Pitchess Motion Limitations
In California, there is a carefully-prescribed procedure governing Pitchess motions. Evidence obtained from one Pitchess motion cannot be used in a different case, absent a court order. When a court grants a defendant’s Pitchess motion, the court is required to order that the records may not be used for any other proceeding. The statutory scheme was developed, in part, because law enforcement departments had developed a practice of purging their files concerning misconduct claims made against their officers.
When courts grant Pitchess motions, courts generally refuse to disclose verbatim reports or records from peace officer personnel files. Instead, courts typically order the law enforcement agency to reveal the name, address, and telephone number of any prior complainants and/or witnesses as well as the dates of the incidents in question. The defense can obtain copies of the verbatim reports under certain circumstances. If the defense can show that the witnesses cannot be found, the witnesses cannot recall what they said, or the witnesses refuse to talk with the defense, the defense can obtain copies of the full reports.
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