Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Page 1


Supreme Court Simplifies Procedure for Some Pitchess Motions


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


A criminal defense attorney who obtains information about alleged police misconduct via a Pitchess motion is not necessarily barred from using that information in a case involving a different defendant, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The justices, without dissent, affirmed a ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s Div. One in favor of Tariq Chambers. Both appellate courts said that Chambers could use information derived from his attorney’s discovery under Pitchess that another client of the attorney had a run-in with the same police officer.

Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531, holds that peace officer personnel records may be discoverable if relevant to a claim of dishonesty or abuse of authority by the officer that may bear on a triable issue in a criminal or civil case.

Procedure Codified

Provisions of the Evidence Code, beginning at Sec. 1043, say the trial judge must order that the requested documents be produced for examination if the moving party establishes good cause for discovery. If the judge then finds the documents admissible or likely to lead to discovery of admissible evidence, they are turned over to the moving party’s counsel, subject to a protective order under Evidence Code Sec. 1045(e).

The protective order must balance the officer’s privacy and due process interests against the interests sought to be served by disclosure, the statute provides.

The Supreme Court said Chambers could use the information derived from the disclosure his attorney received in the other matter because Chambers would have obtained the same information based on his own Pitchess motion and the information was relevant to his own defense to a charge of resisting, delaying, or obstructing a peace officer.

Criminal Charge

Chambers was charged in 2004 after two officers of the San Diego Police Department responded to a report of domestic violence at his residence. According to the police report, Chambers became belligerent and rushed towards one officer, who used pepper spray to defend himself.  Both officers then allegedly drew their guns and threatened to shoot him. 

Denying the officers’ account and asserting that one of the officers had lied, Chambers moved for disclosure of personnel records, including complaints for excessive force or dishonesty.

Chambers’ deputy public defender, Kristin Scogin, said she had received the name of a complainant against the same officer under a separate Pitchess motion in an unrelated matter, along with derivative information that had been developed independently.  Despite the protective order in the other case, she asked the trial court to release the name of the complainant in that matter, and asked permission to use derivative information that had been independently developed as a result of that disclosure.

The trial court concluded that Chambers was precluded from using information developed under other Pitchess motions and denied the motion after finding the information regarding other complainants was not relevant.

Chambers petitioned for writ relief to the court of appeal, who held that information regarding the complainant disclosed in the separate case should be disclosed to Chambers, subject to an appropriate protective order under Sec. 1045(e).  The court further held that because it was ordering disclosure of the complainant’s identity to Chambers, the deputy public defender would not violate the Sec. 1045(e) order in the separate case if she used the derivative information acquired during investigation of the separate matter.

Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the Supreme Court, agreed.

“We adopt the rule formulated by the Court of Appeal for this narrow factual situation,” she said.  “When complainant information has been ordered disclosed to counsel who, when later representing a different defendant, succeeds under Pitchess in discovering the same complainant information relating to the same officer, counsel may then refer to the derivative information uncovered as part of the earlier follow-up investigation.”

Noting that the protective order was designed to ensure that disclosure of confidential information be limited to the proceeding in which the disclosure was ordered, she said:

“Once a subsequent defendant obtains that same information under a valid Pitchess order, there is little justification for precluding review of derivative information…

“This approach is consistent with the purpose of the Pitchess scheme to balance the police officer’s privacy interest in his or her personnel records with the criminal defendant’s interest in obtaining all pertinent information.”

Corrigan was joined in her opinion by Chief Justice Ronald M. George and Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, and Ming W. Chin.

Justices Carlos Moreno and Marvin R. Baxter filed separate concurring opinions.

Baxter said that he saw no reason to distinguish between direct and derivative “use.”

“Otherwise,” he said, “counsel could win Pitchess disclosure against an officer in one case, obtain derivative information as a result, then invade the hapless officer’s confidential file again and again… simply by bringing an infinite number of subsequent Pitchess motions, using the previously obtained information to demonstrate the need for new disclosure.”

Arguing from a standpoint of judicial efficiency, Moreno said that Sec. 1045 allows defendants Pitchess discovery in any court proceeding, and that making the same Pitchess determination repeatedly would force attorneys and judges to “reinvent the wheel” with each new request regarding the same officer.

Deputy Public Defender Matthew Braner, the defendant’s appellate counsel, said his client was “pretty happy” with the decision, and said that the court had made a very cumbersome process less so.

Deputy San Diego City Attorney David M. Stotland said that his office had wished for a different outcome.  Nevertheless, he said, the decision codified what public defenders have been doing in the last few years, and he noted that the position adopted by the court was the same position that the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office had advocated as amicus curiae.

The case is Chambers v. Superior Court (San Diego Police Department), 2007 S.O.S. 6826.


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