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Pitchess Motions

Pitchess Motions in California

One widespread defense strategy a good attorney might employ when you're charged with a crime is to seek to discredit the testimony of the law enforcement officer who arrested you.  This is an especially relevant strategy when the officer is suspected of misconduct, such as using excessive force or filing a false report.

Simply put, a Pitchess motion is a defendant's request to inspect a law enforcement officer's personnel file for evidence of misconduct, often part of the pretrial process when they believe the police officer acted improperly.

Pitchess Motions in California
A Pitchess motion is a defendant's request for information from a police officer's personnel records.

California Senate Bill 1421 was signed into law in 2018, making a Pitchess motion unnecessary for some types of requests for information because they are open for public inspection.

These open public records include situations when police shoot their weapon at someone, use force that results in great bodily injury or death, a finding they committed a sexual assault, or a dishonest act, such as perjury.

However, Pitchess motions are still necessary if the defendant wants information from an officer's personnel file and the information was not authorized for inspection under SB 1421.

Some examples of information a defendant typically seeks include records where the officer used racial profiling, prejudicial acts, coerced confessions, or falsifying testimony or evidence. A Pitchess motion must describe the type of records or information they seek and show “good cause” to release the records.

Suppose a judge decides that a Pitchess motion shows “good cause” for disclosing a police officer's personnel records. In that case, the judge holds a private “in-camera” hearing to determine whether the records are relevant to the case.

One of the most effective tools in implementing this strategy is for your attorney to file a Pitchess motion, a specialized discovery motion in California law where the defendant requests access to the law enforcement officer's personnel records.

What is the Origin of a Pitchess Motion?

The Pitchess motion originated from the landmark California case, Pitchess v. Superior Court, in 1974. In this case, Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess challenged the defendant's request for complaints filed against the deputies involved in his arrest.

The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendant, holding that defendants have a right to access a law enforcement officer's personnel records for information that might impugn the officer's credibility or demonstrate their propensity for violence.

When and Why is This Motion Used?

As noted, the primary purpose of a Pitchess motion is to uncover potential material that can be used to challenge or impeach the credibility of a police officer, especially in cases where the officer's conduct is directly relevant to the topic at hand.

Why is a Pitchess Motion Used?
A Pitchess motion in California is an attempt to impeach the credibility of a police officer.

This is typically based on their past misconduct. For instance, if a defendant alleges that an officer used excessive force or fabricated evidence, a Pitchess motion can be instrumental in obtaining records that may support these claims.

This motion is particularly significant in the context of police misconduct records because it provides a legal avenue for accessing information that is typically considered privileged and confidential.

This includes details about an officer's history of misconduct complaints, disciplinary actions, and other relevant behavioral patterns. Such information can be crucial in shaping the defense strategy and potentially influencing the trial's outcome.

What Are the Changes in the Law?

As noted, as of 2018, Senate Bill 1421 has implemented essential changes in the law that make certain police records available to the public without the need to file a Pitchess motion. The main provisions of SB 1421 apply to records related to:

  • Officer-Involved Shootings and Use of Force: Records relating to incidents where police fired a weapon at someone or when the officer's use of force resulted in death or great bodily injury are now available to the public.
  • Sexual Assault: Records involving sustained findings of sexual assault committed by on-duty law enforcement officers against members of the public are available under this law.
  • Dishonesty Related to Criminal Investigations: The law also allows access to records where an officer was found dishonest in reporting, investigating, or prosecuting a crime. This includes perjury, false statements, filing false reports, destruction, falsifying, or concealing of evidence.

While SB 1421 broadens access to certain types of law enforcement records, it doesn't eliminate the need for Pitchess motions.

Examples of police record information not covered by SB 1421 may include incidents involving racism or racial profiling, coerced confessions, etc. If a certain file or piece of information is unavailable under SB 1421, your attorney may still have to file a Pitchess motion to obtain access. Under SB 14 21, records can include the following:

  • Pictures;
  • Video and audio evidence;
  • Transcripts of any interviews;
  • Recording of any interviews;
  • Investigation reports;
  • Disciplinary records;
  • Documents of recommended findings;
  • Autopsy reports.

Notably, when authorized records are open for inspection, some information must be redacted or edited to protect certain people, such as witnesses. The information that is usually redacted includes the following:

  • Personal info, such as addresses, phone numbers, and names of family members;
  • Any information that would place the officer's safety at risk;
  • Any information where the public interest is not served;
  • Medical or financial information.

What Happens When a Pitchess Motion is Filed?

A successful Pitchess motion must go through a particular series of steps, as discussed below.

Filing the Motion

The attorney must include the following essential information when filing a Pitchess motion:

  • Identifying information (i.e., defendant, court case, officer in question, agency holding the records, etc.);
  • A description of the specific records being requested;
  • Proof that the relevant agencies have been given notice that the records are needed; and
  • Proof of good cause as to why the records are needed. (A judge will NOT grant a Pitchess motion unless good cause is established.)

In-Camera Hearing

Suppose the attorney has presented the motion correctly and proven good cause. In that case, the judge will hold an in-camera hearing (meaning "in private") with only the police officer in question and anyone the officer wishes to be present.

During this hearing, the judge will review police files to determine which information is relevant to the case. Only information that the judge determines is relevant will be disclosed to the defendant. Off-limits records include the following:

  • Complaints against the officer occurring more than five years before the alleged police misconduct;
  • Personal conclusions of any other officer investigating a citizen complaint against the officer, and
  • Information so insignificant that disclosing it would have little or no practical benefit to the case.

Notably, any Pitchess materials can't be disclosed for purposes other than the case in question, and the judge could issue a protective order to keep the information private if there is a good cause.

Granting or Denying the Motion

After the in-camera hearing, the Judge will rule whether to grant or deny the Pitchess motion.

If the motion is denied: None of the police records requested will be released. If the motion is granted, remember that the requested files will still not be released to the defense in most cases outright.

Granting or Denying a Pitchess Motion
Contact our criminal defense law firm for help.

Instead, the Judge will provide the name and contact information of the people who filed previous complaints against the officer that generated those files, and your attorney may then interview them to get their testimony. Only if those witnesses are not available to testify will the actual records be released.

If the Pitchess motion is granted and the agency in question refuses to release the officer's personnel records, the charges will be automatically dismissed.

Prosecutors might keep a “Brady List,” which is a list of the names of police with criminal convictions or past incidents of lying. If you seek a Pitchess motion, contact us for a case review by phone or via the contact form. Eisner Gorin LLP has offices in Los Angeles, CA.

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