California criminal defense attorneys typically make one or more pre-trial motions before the case goes to trial. One request is known as a Pitchess motion - an effort to access information in the arresting officer's personnel file.
A Pitchess motion is a request made by a defendant in a criminal action for access to information in the personnel file of an arresting police officer. Pitchess motions can also be made in civil actions, but they are rare. The name “Pitchess” comes from a 1974 California Supreme Court case, Pitchess v. Superior Court. The Pitchess process is now codified in California Evidence Code sections 1043-47.
The theory underlying a Pitchess motion is that a defendant should be entitled to any information that is relevant to his/her defense. If the arresting officer’s personnel file contains information that might bear on the defendant’s claim that the officer had engaged in misconduct, as a matter of fairness, the defendant should have access to that information.
Both the legislature and the courts, however, have recognized that the police officer whose records are sought has an equally compelling interest in maintaining the privacy of his/her personnel file. The Pitchess hearing process is designed to ensure an appropriate balance of those two competing interests.
Pitchess motions are most often filed seeking information about officer dishonesty. Allegations may include filing a false police report, using improper tactics, such as illegal methods of obtaining evidence, or physically abusing or threatening the defendant.
A hearing must be held to review a Pitchess motion, because the court must balance the defendant's rights against the officer's equally compelling interest in maintaining privacy.
Records subject to Pitchess motions include all files the law-enforcement agency has maintained on the arresting officer. These may include citizen complaints, internal affairs investigations, and psychological medical records concerning the arresting officer. However, the records the defense wishes to access must be relevant to the specific complaint. For example, if the defendant accuses the officer of filing a false police report, records of an excessive force complaint could not be accessed.
A Pitchess motion must be served by the defense on the law enforcement agency that employs the officer. The motion must include a hearing notice that specifies which records are sought, a summary of the legal arguments that support the disclosure, a declaration under oath (usually by the defense counsel) which specifies the defenses raised and the factual justification for disclosure, and a proposed order for the judge to sign. If excessive force is charged against the officer, a copy of the police report must also be attached.
The motion must be served at least 21 calendar days before the hearing date if hand-delivered to the law-enforcement agency. If the motion is served by mail, five extra days must be allowed.
The hearing takes place in two stages. The court must first determine which types of records are subject to disclosure. Next, the judge will review the particular records outside of the presence of the lawyers and defendant.
Only Pitchess motions that demonstrate good cause will be considered, but the legal standard for good cause is relatively low. The court will approve the motion only if the defense lawyer has set forth specific facts that support the particular records requested. Defense counsel need only show that the scenario of police misconduct could or might have occurred. The court will not likely grant access to outdated records, even if they involve the same type of misconduct alleged.
Pitchess motion is a favorable ruling for the defense that results in police officer’s records being released. An experienced California DUI defense attorney will attempt to use the information to show a pattern of misconduct on the part of the arresting officer, which may result in some evidence being excluded.
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