Monday, July 3, 2006
Court Must Review Sealed Affidavit Supporting Defendant’s Motion for Police Records Before Ordering Disclosure—C.A.
By Tina Bay, Staff Writer
A trial court must conduct ex parte in camera review of the sealed affidavit that a defendant submits in support of his motion to discover police personnel records, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Three granted a writ of mandate sought by Lercy Williams, who argued he did not have to hand over an unredacted copy of his attorney’s sealed affidavit to Anaheim City Attorney Jack L. White, but was entitled to an in camera hearing to determine whether disclosure would violate his constitutional rights or attorney-client privilege.
After being charged with various felonies arising out of a scuffle with the police, Williams sought to discover the personnel files of the officers involved in his criminal case. Williams brought a motion for discovery of police personnel records, commonly known as a Pitchess motion after the state Supreme Court case that established the procedure, accompanied by a “sealed declaration of counsel” explaining why the defense needed the evidence.
Orange Superior Court Judge Richard M. King found that the declaration contained potentially privileged material, but after Williams refused to provide an unredacted copy of it under protective order to the police records custodian, King denied Williams’ request for an in camera hearing to determine application of privilege to the declaration.
Noting that Williams’ sealed declaration was procedurally permissible, however, the justices held that King abused his discretion in refusing to conduct an in camera review.
King should not have required Williams to give the records custodian an unexpurgated copy of the supporting declaration, whose factual account likely disclosed privileged information such as non-obvious legal theories or tactical strategies, the justices explained.
Because the records custodian, the real party in interest in Pitchess motion cases, usually represents the interest of the police officers whose records are sought, requiring a defendant to disclose the contents of a sealed affidavit may jeopardize a criminal defendant’s fair trial rights, Justice William Bedsworth wrote for the panel.
“The defense would be under no obligation to disclose any of these things to the prosecution if they were not seeking Pitchess records, and we are unable to see why they should have to forfeit the confidentiality in order to obtain otherwise allowable discovery,” Bedsworth said.
The justice said there was “no perfect solution” for protecting both police officers’ privacy and criminal defendants’ rights in a case like Williams’.
“[W]e have reluctantly concluded that the threat to privacy, protected by an independent and sympathetic judiciary is less likely to become pernicious than the threat to the rights of criminal defendants protected by the good will of parties who share the same employers, lunch rooms, and municipal treasuries as the officers in question,” Bedsworth said, adding that the panel was not impugning the integrity of public servants.
“We think the interests at stake here are better safeguarded by equally fallible but disinterested parties: the judges of the superior courts of the state,” the justice concluded.
The case is Williams v. Superior Court (City of Anaheim), G036362.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company