• A Criminal Defendant's Pitchess Motion Must Be Supported by a Showing of Good Cause
  • March 30, 2010 | Author: Mona Ebrahimi
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In The People v. Russel David Sanderson, (--- Cal.Rptr.3d ----, Cal.App. 4 Dist., February 9, 2010), a California court of appeal considered whether the trial court erred in denying a defendant’s Pitchess motion and whether the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s section 1118.1 motion for acquittal, in which the defendant contended that the prosecution’s case-in-chief as to count 1 of his charged offenses was insufficient to prove the charged offenses. The appeals court affirmed the trial court in full.

    On January 11, 2008, Russel David Sanderson called Lorraine Silverman on her cell phone. Sanderson had previously lived with his girlfriend at Silverman’s home for two months. Sanderson informed Silverman that her son Jordan owed him $20 and he wanted to collect the money. Silverman asked Sanderson to come to her house to retrieve the money. Silverman’s friend, Michael Simmons, was at the home when Sanderson arrived. When Sanderson arrived at the house, Jordan insisted that Sanderson was the one that owed him money. The situation resulted in a fight between Sanderson and Simmons and then Sanderson fled.

    Simmons testified at trial that before fleeing, Sanderson threatened to kill him. A witness testified at trial that Simmons called the police because he was frightened that Sanderson’s threat was sincere. The police responded to Simmons’s call and, while there, Sanderson called again. During the call, which was broadcast to the room using the speakerphone function, Sanderson stated, “I’m going to ... kill you ... I’m going to take you out.” The responding officer testified that he heard the voice say he would “[b]e back tonight to kick your ass, and we got guns, and we’ll be back.” Sanderson was charged with two counts of making criminal threats. At trial, the prosecution relied on the threats made during the phone call as the basis for both counts.

    Prior to trial, Sanderson alleged that the police had falsified information in their report, specifically his statements made over the phone. He filed a Pitchess motion to obtain any of the officers’ personnel records relevant to dishonesty and falsifying police reports. The motion was denied as was his motion for acquittal. Sanderson appealed.

    The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, denying Sanderson’s requested relief in full.

    First, the court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Sanderson’s Pitchess motion. In support of this motion, Sanderson noted that one officer’s police report indicated that both officers heard Sanderson make threats while on speakerphone with a witness. Sanderson denied making the statement attributed to him by responding officers. Based on this discrepancy, Sanderson argued that records of dishonesty and fabrication by responding officers would be relevant to disprove that the statements were made. The trial court denied Sanderson’s request without any in camera review, noting that Sanderson had failed to make a threshold showing of good cause.

    The trial court found that Sanderson had merely established a credibility issue, which lacked sufficient factual detail to make such records pertinent or discoverable. It further noted, “If [a credibility issue] could be the basis for a Pitchess motion to discover records, that could happen in every single case. And, as such, I do believe [the request] is overbroad.”

    The court of appeal held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The court noted that good cause for discovery exists when the defendant shows both “materiality” to the subject matter of the pending litigation and a “reasonable belief” that the agency has the type of information sought. A defendant does not need to corroborate or show motivation for the alleged officer misconduct, rather he must provide a “plausible scenario” that might have or could have occurred. A scenario is plausible when it asserts specific misconduct that is both internally consistent and supports the proposed defense.

    The court of appeal held that Sanderson did not present a specific factual scenario that is plausible when read in light of the undisputed circumstances. Sanderson simply denied making the statement attributed to him; he did not deny making the phone call or engaging in a conversation over the phone with the witness while police were present. Therefore, Sanderson failed to present an “alternate version of the facts.”

    Second, the court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of Sanderson’s section 1118.1 motion. Sanderson argued that the evidence was insufficient to prove that he intended his threat to be conveyed to Simmons. The court of appeals reviewed the evidence and noted that three witnesses testified to their ability to hear Sanderson simultaneously on speakerphone. Therefore, the court held, it would not be unreasonable for the trier of fact to infer that Sanderson knew he was on speakerphone. One witness testified that a reporting officer pretended to be Simmons; thus, it would be reasonable to conclude that Sanderson knew Simmons was listening in.

    In addition, the court of appeal disagreed with Sanderson’s contention that evidence presented was insufficient to establish that the threat caused Simmons to be in sustained fear. Sustained fear is defined as “a period of time that extends beyond what is momentary, fleeting, or transitory.” The court held that a victim’s knowledge of defendant’s prior threatening conduct and the specificity of the threat are relevant to a determination that the victim had sustained fear.