A California Pitchess Motion (Evidence Code 1043 and 1045 EC) is a request for the information contained in the personnel file of law enforcement officers. Typically, your criminal defense lawyers will file a Pitchess Motion during the pre-trial process when they have reason to believe that you, the client, has been the victim of some form of police misconduct. Types of misconduct by law enforcement officers to support a Pitchess Motion include, but are not limited to:
•Use of excessive force
•Not telling the truth in their police reports
•Fabricating or planting evidence
If you believe that any of the law enforcement officers involved in your arrest may have engaged in any form of misconduct and that the misconduct had a material impact on the charges brought against you, then a Pitchess Motion should be filed to assist in bringing up proof that they have a history of that sort of behavior.
Procedures and Standards in Filing Pitchess Motions
The first thing your attorney will do is file the Pitchess Motion with the court. The attorney must provide written notice of the Pitchess Motion to the agency that maintains the personnel records which you are seeking. Among other things, the Pitchess Motion must include:
•A description of the type of records or information which is being sought
•Documents showing “good cause” why the records should be released.
If the judge then determines that you do have “good cause” for disclosing the personnel records of the law enforcement officials, he/she will hold a private (in camera) hearing where he/she will decides which records are relevant to your case. How Can a Pitchess Motion Help your Case?
Depending upon what is discovered in the personnel records, a Pitchess Motion which is successful can persuade the prosecution to reduce, and sometimes dismiss, one or more of the charges against you. If the prosecutor does not choose to do so, the information can still help you to pursue:
•A motion to set aside information (Penal Code 995)
•A motion to suppress evidence (Penal Code 1538.5)
Normally, the above information/personnel records would be strictly confidential. However, thanks to the 1974 California Supreme Court case Pitchess v. Superior Court, and eventually Sections 1043 through 1047 of the California Evidence Code, defendants in criminal cases can access this information if it can be relevant to their defense. The information in the personnel file of an officer may be relevant in defending the criminal charges against you by asserting police misconduct as outlined above. It could also be very useful to know if those same officer(s) have ever been accused of similar misconduct in the past. The personnel files will contain said information relative to past complaints and investigation against them.
How to File a Pitchess Motion
Evidence Codes 1043 EC and 1045 EC (which outline the process for filing Pitchess Motions) are designed to balance the competing claims that:•A criminal defendant is entitled to any and all information that is relevant to their defense in order to ensure that he/she receives a fair trial•A law enforcement officer has a convincing interest in maintaining the privacy of their personnel file.
Pitchess Motions are filed during the pre-trial proceedings. Any Pitchess Motions filed will be decided upon prior to trial.California law requires that Pitchess Motions be filed in writing. A Pitchess Motion must include (under Evidence Code 1043 EC):
•The criminal court case number
•The defendant's name
•The name of the officer whose records are being sought
•The name of the agency that has custody of the records
•A detailed description of the type of records being sought
•An affidavit showing “good cause” for the disclosure of the records
•Proof that the defendant has notified the agency that hold the records of the motion.
Showing Good Cause
The affidavit showing “good cause” is the most important part of the Pitchess Motion.
Good cause is constituted if the affidavit sets forth:
•A specific factual scenario that supports the allegations of misconduct
•Reasons why the misconduct would be material to the case.
The attorney signing the affidavit does not need to have first-hand knowledge of the misconduct. It is acceptable for the attorney to state that he/she “believes and has been informed” that the officer(s) engaged in misconduct.
For the misconduct to be material to the defense of the case, there has to be a logical connection between the pending criminal charges and the defense, and also a reason as to why the requested information would make a difference to the defense. If the “good cause” affidavit and the remainder of the Pitchess Motion meet the requirements, then the motion will be granted, and will proceed on to the next step. In Camera Hearing on Pitchess Motions
The next step in the process is the “in camera” hearing which is conducted by the judge. This hearing will be held in private as opposed to being held in open court. During the hearing the judge will assess whether or not the information in the personnel files of the law enforcement officer(s) is relevant to your claim. The only information that will be disclosed is the information that the judge deems relevant. There are certain types of information that the judge cannot and will not disclose. These include:
•Information about complaints which have been filed against the officer(s) which occurred more than five (5) years previous to the alleged misconduct in the defendant's case
•Personal conclusions (as opposed to disciplinary action) of any other law enforcement officer investigating a citizen's complaint against the officer(s)
•Facts that are so remote that disclosing them would have little or no benefit
Neither your lawyer nor the prosecutor will attend the Pitchess Motion “in camera” hearing. The only people who would normally attend are:
•The officer for which the records are being sought
•Anyone else the officer would like to have present, i.e. the custodian of records for the police department.
The Two Potential Outcomes of Pitchess Motions
A Successful Pitchess Motion
If the Pitchess Motion is successful, it is most likely because the judge discovered complaints against the officer and deems those complaints relevant to your case.
If this is the case, the judge will not normally turn over that documentation, but rather will give your attorney the contact information of anyone who has previously filed a complaint against the officer.
Your attorney then has the right to contact/subpoena these individuals to question them and present them as possible witnesses.
If these individuals are not available or cannot remember the incident, then California law will allow your attorney to obtain the records of the complaints.
If the judge then orders disclosure of those personnel records and the agency holding the records refuses to comply, then the charges against you must be dismissed.
An Unsuccessful Pitchess Motion
If your Pitchess Motion is not granted and the judge refuses an “in camera” hearing, then you can still appeal this decision.
If your Pitchess Motion is denied and you are then convicted, you have the right to appeal your conviction under the argument that said motion should not have been denied because you showed “good cause” in asking for the personnel records of the officer.
If the appeals court judge then finds that the motion should not have been denied, then your case will be sent back to the trial court to determine whether or not your case was prejudiced by the denial of the motion.
The trial court judge will hold an “in camera” hearing on your motion. If he/she does not find any information that is relevant, then your conviction will stand.If the trial court judge does find relevant information in the personnel file, your attorney will then argue that not having this information adversely affected the outcome of your trial. If the judge agrees, then your conviction could be overturned and you will be granted a new trial. Related California Criminal Motions
The information received from a successful Pitchess Motion may persuade the prosecution to reduce, and sometimes dismiss, one or more of the charges brought against you. However, when the prosecutor does not want to do so, the information received could help you and your attorney to pursue other criminal motions in helping your case.
Do you have questions about a case? Visalia and Bakersfield area criminal defense attorneys at Martens & Brusseau can assist you with criminal charges. With years of criminal defense experience, our firm has handled thousands of cases. Attorneys here have the skills and knowledge needed to defend your rights. Serving the Visalia, Fresno, and Bakersfield areas, Martens & Brusseau can provide expert criminal defense counsel. CONTACT US AT 559-302-9722 OR 661-466-2142 TODAY