Pitchess Motion Required To Seek Discovery Of Former Peace Officer's Personnel File

March 10, 2011

Tami Potter was a former county probation officer and a resident of a sober living house in November, 2005.  Potter accused another resident, Moreno, of stealing money from her and allegedly pushed Moreno in the chest. Moreno stabbed Potter multiple times, killing her.  Moreno was arrested and prosecuted for murder.  Moreno claimed that he was defending himself or was otherwise provoked.

Moreno filed a Pitchess motion to get information from the personnel files retained on Potter when she was a probation officer.  Moreno alleged that the personnel files could reveal whether Potter had a history of use of force when arresting people or supervising detainees in custody.  Moreno contended the personnel files were related to his potential claims, defenses or impeachment concerning Potter's use of force, violence, hostility, or aggression.  The trial court denied the motion stating that Moreno did not provide sufficient grounds to justify his receipt of the files. 

The jury convicted Moreno of first degree murder. Moreno appealed on several grounds, including that the trial court should have granted his Pitchess motion for Potter's personnel files.  The Court of Appeal agreed and ordered conditional reversal pending the trial court's in camera review of Potter's personnel files.

In order to win a Pitchess motion and obtain a peace officer's personnel files, one must show good cause for the files.  "Good cause" requires the defendant to establish a logical link between a proposed defense and the pending charge, and to articulate how the personnel file information would support the defense or how it would impeach the officer's version of events.  The threshold for establishing "good cause" is relatively low; one need only show how the information sought could lead to or be evidence potentially admissible at trial.  If good cause is established, the court must review the records in camera to determine what information, if any, should be disclosed.

The Court found a logical link between the crime charged (murder) and the proposed defenses of pure or imperfect self-defense, or the absence of planning and premeditation.  The prosecution argued that it was extremely unlikely that Potter made an aggressive and unwarranted advance.  The Court noted that this is not the test.  The factual plausibility requirement is satisfied if the scenario might or could have occurred.  The Court found that the aggression described by Moreno might have occurred, so the court would review the personnel files for relevant information.

The prosecution further argued that the Pitchess motion standard did not apply because Potter was not a peace officer at the time of the alleged crime.  The Court noted a lack of authority on the issue, but held that material in a peace officer's file is still subject to the Pitchess motion standard, even if the officer is no longer a peace officer at the time of the alleged crime.

People v. Moreno (2011) - 192Cal.App.4th 692.
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