• Pitchess Motion Appellate Ruling
  • October 26, 2012 | Author: G. Ross Trindle
  • Law Firm: Best Best & Krieger LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • Overview: A California Appellate Court recently ruled that a hearing officer could grant a Pitchess motion for discovery of personnel records that were relevant to an appeal of discipline brought by a terminated correctional officer. A Riverside County Sheriff’s Department employee who was terminated for falsifying time records filed a motion with the hearing officer for discovery of personnel records arguing that her penalty was disproportionate to the misconduct because other Department employees who also falsified time records had received lesser punishment. The appellate court overturned the trial court’s determination that the hearing officer had no authority to rule on a Pitchess motion.

    Training Points: This case provides insight into the availability of Pitchess information outside of the typical criminal defendant context. It may impact state and local agencies engaged in administrative proceedings, especially disciplinary proceedings. The decision does not limit Pitchess authority to “sworn judicial officers” in court, but extends discretion to hearing officers in administrative proceedings. Agencies should consult with their Pitchess counsel whenever the disclosure of information from law enforcement personnel files is sought to confirm whether the Pitchess protections apply and, if so, how best to implement them in the specific hearing.

    Summary Analysis: In Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz, correctional officer Kristy Drinkwater claimed her termination was excessive compared to the punishment imposed on other personnel. She requested the disciplinary records of other Department officers who had been investigated for similar misconduct. Hearing officer Jan Stiglitz ordered the Department to produce the requested records for in camera review. The trial court, citing Brown v. Valverde, found that only a judicial officer could rule on a Pitchess motion. The appellate court disagreed with a reading of Brown that would exclude Pitchess motions in any administrative hearing. It distinguished the DMV hearing addressed in Brown from employee disciplinary proceedings. The court concluded that Brown did not limit the discovery of records relevant to Drinkwater’s case and ordered the in camera hearing to take place before the hearing officer.