|June 1, 2012|
Previously published on May 31, 2012
Overview: A California Court of Appeal recently held that a defendant, via a Pitchess motion, could seek disclosure of statements made by civilian witnesses to his arrest, even if the statements were obtained during an internal affairs (IA) investigation and placed in an officer’s personnel file. The request for witness statements followed an initial Pitchess motion seeking contact information for witnesses in prior citizens’ complaints. Defendant then filed a supplemental Pitchess motion seeking witness statements from the incident leading to his arrest. The court ordered a review and disclosure of any relevant civilian witness statements, emphasizing that witness statements of the current incident would be discoverable if not contained in a personnel file and that mere placement in the file did not prevent court review.
Training Point: This case illustrates that civilian witness statements from an IA investigation related to a pending criminal complaint and placed in an officer’s personnel file are not automatically shielded from in camera review. If a defendant can show good cause, materiality and relevancy, the statements may be subject to disclosure. Importantly, a request for actual witness statements typically only follows after unsuccessful use of contact information released after an initial Pitchess motion. A defendant typically must file two Pitchess motions, which provides an additional opportunity to defend against disclosure. Also, the case only dealt with civilian witnesses and not law enforcement witnesses. Strong arguments can be made that disclosure of law enforcement witness statements should not be allowed, or only allowed following redaction of opinions, impressions and conclusions, which are outside the scope of Pitchess.
Summary Analysis: In Rezek v. Superior Court (People), a criminal defendant charged with obstructing a police officer claimed that the arresting officer broke his arm. Defendant filed an initial Pitchess motion and obtained witness contact information for a prior excessive force complaint against the officer. Defendant filed a supplemental Pitchess motion, requesting witness statements from an IA investigation placed in the officer’s personnel file regarding the current incident, for which defendant had filed a citizen’s complaint. The trial court denied the request, finding that it did not have the power to review the statements. The appellate court disagreed, finding that the defendant had shown good cause for disclosure and was entitled to material statements regarding his arrest. In this case, the defendant’s right to obtain directly relevant evidence outweighed the privacy interest of the officer.