Monday, October 1, 2012
Hearing Officer May Grant Pitchess Motion—Court of Appeal
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
An administrative hearing officer may, under some circumstances, order discovery of material in a peace officer’s personnel file, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday.
Div. Two overturned a Riverside Superior Court judge’s ruling directing hearing officer Jan Stiglitz to deny a Pitchess motion brought on behalf of Kristy Drinkwater, a fired correctional deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Drinkwater, who was terminated for falsifying time records, contends that the penalty was excessive because other employees were not fired for similar conduct. She sought to obtain information from the files of employees she claims were in that category, but the department objected.
Drinkwater’s initial request was broader, and would have required the department to search its own files in order to identify employees who might have received lesser discipline for offenses similar to hers. Stiglitz denied that request, and Drinkwater narrowed it to specific employees whom she named.
After Stiglitz granted that request, the department argued for the first time that only a judicial officer can grant discovery of peace officer personnel records under Penal Code Sec. 832.7, which sets forth the procedure for obtaining such records, which were held discoverable in Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531.
Riverside Superior Court Judge Mac Fisher agreed with the department and ordered that discovery be denied. But Justice Art McKinster, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the Legislature never intended to limit the authority to grant Pitchess discovery to judicial officers.
The intent of the statute, the justice said, was to protect against the destruction of potentially damaging records to protect officers’ privacy, following allegations that some agencies were shredding records in response to Pitchess. “However…regardless of the initial impetus for the enactment of the Pitchess statutes, the language of the statute unambiguously reflects the Legislature’s recognition that Pitchess discovery may be relevant in a variety of contexts and that it chose to apply Pitchess discovery generally, not solely in criminal proceedings,” the jurist wrote.
McKinster also rejected the argument that the general confidentiality afforded peace officer personnel records means that they cannot be discovered in administrative proceedings.
“We are not persuaded that protection of the noninvolved officers’ privacy interests requires a blanket prohibition on the use of their personnel records in a [Public Safety Officers’ Procedural Bill of Rights] hearing, even a nonpublic proceeding as provided for in the [memorandum of understanding] in this case,” the justice wrote. “The Legislature devised the Pitchess procedure specifically to balance privacy concerns with legitimate discovery needs, and provided that where Pitchess materials are relevant, privacy interests must give way to the legitimate interests of parties to litigation. “
The appeal drew several amicus briefs, with the Peace Officers’ Research Association of California Legal Defense Fund and Los Angeles Police Protective League supporting Drinkwater, while the California State Association of Counties and California League of Cities supported the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in its opposition to discovery.
The case is Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz, E052729.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company