A Pitchess motion is a request made by the defense in a California criminal case, such as a DUI case or a resisting arrest case, to access a law enforcement officer's personnel information when the defendant alleges in an affidavit that the officer used excessive force or lied about the events surrounding the defendant's arrest. The information provided will include prior incidents of use of force, allegations of excessive force, citizen complaints, and information gathered during the officer's pre-employment background investigation. The motion's name comes from the case Pitchess v. Superior Court 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974).
Context of the case
The story of Pitchess v. Superior Court is somewhat convoluted. The Los Angeles County Sheriff, Peter J. Pitchess, along with members of his administrative staff, are the case's petitioners, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is the respondent, with a man named César Echeverría as the real party in interest. Sheriff Pitchess had sought a writ of mandate to compel the Superior Court to quash its subpoena duces tecum which required that Pitchess' office produce documents for a trial in which Mr. Echeverría was named as defendant. Mr. Echeverría was being charged at the time with four felony counts of assaulting four sheriff's deputies, and this despite the fact that immediately following the incident he was in an intensive care unit and the officers themselves had sustained no serious injuries. His attorney, Miguel F. García wished to obtain evidence from the Sheriff's Office regarding records of complaints by the public about the propensity of these deputies to use excessive force. The Sheriff's Office had flatly refused to provide such documents. García had then convinced a court to issue a subpoena for them, and the Sheriff's Office, in the form of Sheriff Pitchess, petitioned the Court of Appeals to hold a hearing to have the subpoena "quashed." The petition was unusual in that it came directly from the county sheriff, and so the Court of Appeals readily agreed to hear the petition.:p.45
The Court found, however, that although such records could be classified as "discoverable" by Mr. García, they had to contain complaints that were "sustained" by the police department itself before they would need to be provided. In other words, the police department would have to have a record of a deputy's propensity for or acts of abuse substantiated by the department itself, and that almost never happens (and was not the case in this instance).:p.45
Mr. García then petitioned the State Supreme Court to uphold the subpoena, and it did so in a 7-0 ruling (i.e., with no dissenting justices). Today, the Pitchess motion is one of the 15 or 20 most common motions filed in criminal court in the state of California.:p.47
A defendant's right to information about alleged officer misconduct or dishonesty has since been established by statute in California in sections 1043 through 1047 of the California Evidence Code.[dead link]