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.
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 requiring 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.: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 thus providing information for witness impeachment has since been established by statute in California in sections 1043 to 1047 of the California Evidence Code.
A Pitchess v. Superior Court motion can be made by a criminal defendant to discover complaints made against a police officer, and the investigation of those complaints, such that they are contained in the officer’s personnel records. The motions can be made in a California Superior Court under California Evidence Code 1043-1046. Notwithstanding the broad nature of the discovery that the associated court rule and statute provide, getting actual records can be problematic.
A Pitchess motion contains numerous parts. A defendant must identify the case in which the records are being sought. This requirement is easily satisfied by simply referencing the case number. A defendant must attach a full set of the police reports or at least those portions of the police report that relate to the Pitchess Motion. The defendant must identify which officer or officers whose record are sought as well as which government agency has custody of the records. The defendant must also describe, via affidavit or declaration, the records as well as explain why the records are relevant, the defense has to prove there is "good cause" to release the records. Explaining why good cause exists, in other words why the records are relevant often discloses a defense lawyer's strategy in a criminal case. Because of this, courts will allow a defense attorney to file this portion of the motion under seal so only the judge can review it. The defendant must also prove the agency that has custody of the records has received notice of the motion.
In California, there is a carefully prescribed procedure governing Pitchess requests. Evidence obtained from one Pitchess motion cannot be used in a subsequent case absent a court order. When a court grants a defendant's Pitchess motion the court is required to order that the records may not be used for any other proceeding. The statutory scheme was developed, in part, because law enforcement departments had developed a practice of purging their files concerning misconduct claims made against their officers.
Scope of Disclosure
When courts grant Pitchess motions courts generally refuse to disclose verbatim reports or records from peace officer personnel files. Instead courts typically order the law enforcement agency to rival the name, address and telephone number of any prior complainants and/or witnesses as well as the dates of the incidents in question. The defense can obtain copies of the verbatim reports under certain circumstances. For example if the defense can show the witnesses cannot be found, the witnesses cannot recall what they said, or if the witnesses refuse to talk with the defense the defense can obtain copies of the full reports.
- Pitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974)
- Vásquez, Carlos, Oral History Interview with Miguel F. Garcia II (Interview transcript), Los Angeles, retrieved 2013-02-05
- California State University: Pitchess Motion Archived May 28, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- Martindale.com: A Criminal Defendant's Pitchess Motion Must Be Supported by a Showing of Good Cause:
- Cal. Evid. Code §§ 1043-1046
- California Evidence Code sections 1043-1046
- CA Evidence Code section 1043(b)
- CA Evidence Code 1043.
- CA Evidence Code section 1043(b).
- California Code of Civil Procedure section 2015.5
- Alford v. Superior Court (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1044.
- CA Evidence Code section 1043(e), Alford v. Superior Court, (2003) 29 Cal. 4th 1033, 1042.
- Steering, Jerry L. "Brady List and Pitchess Motions". Retrieved April 7, 2014.
- City of Santa Cruz v. Municipal Court (1989) 49 Cal.3d 74, 84.
- Alvarez v. Superior Court (2004) 117 Cal.4th 1107, 1112.
- People v. Matos (1979) 92 Cal.App.3d 862.
- Pitchers v. Superior Court (1974) 11 C.3d 531.
- Alvarez v. Superior Court (2004) 117 Cal.App.4th 1107.