Pitchess Discovery Is Not Limited to the Personnel Records of Officers Who Either Witnessed or Committed Misconduct

Category: Client Update
Date: Feb 10, 2017 11:44 AM

Robert Riske worked as a City of Los Angeles police officer from 1990 until he retired in 2014. In 2008, Riske reported misconduct by his fellow officers and testified against them at an administrative hearing.  Some of Riske’s colleagues thereafter viewed him as a “snitch”, refused to work with him, and ignored him in the field.  In a concerted effort to get more favorable working conditions, Riske applied for promotion from police officer to 14 different detective positions.  Each time, the Police Department awarded the position to an applicant who Riske viewed as less experienced or less qualified. Riske sued the Department for violation of Labor Code section 1102.5, alleging that he was retaliated against for engaging in protected activity.

In his civil litigation, Riske asked the City to disclose the documents that the successful detective candidates had submitted and that the Police Department had used to select them. The City produced rating sheets and ranking matrices, but did not produce information from successful candidates’ confidential personnel files.

Riske filed a Pitchess motion to force the City to produce the personnel file information. Specifically, he sought the qualifications and complaint history of the candidates as well as the candidates’ last two evaluations. Riske claimed the information would show the City’s reasons for failing to promote him were pretext for unlawful retaliation. The City argued that the Pitchess process contained in Evidence Code sections 1043 and 1045 did not apply because the officers whose personnel records Riske wanted had neither witnessed nor been accused of misconduct.  The trial court denied the motion and Riske filed a petition for writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal.

Under the Pitchess process, criminal defendants or civil litigants may be able to receive peace officer personnel file documents that contain information relevant to the defendant’s or litigant’s legal challenge. The party seeking the records must provide “good cause” for disclosure of the records, meaning that the documents are material to the pending litigation.

The Court of Appeal analyzed the statutes governing the Pitchess procedures. The Court explained that materiality of the records at issue is the dispositive factor when determining whether the records should be disclosed. The Court determined that Pitchess is not limited to officers who participated in, or witnessed, alleged wrongdoing. The Court held that, if the party seeking the information can show personnel records of officers not involved in the injury are material to the litigation, he or she has satisfied the “good cause” requirement.

The Court held Riske satisfied the “good cause” requirement by declaring that he engaged in whistleblower activity, that he was qualified for, but did not receive any of the 14 positions for which he applied, and that he was more qualified than each of the selected candidates. Evidence of the applicants’ qualifications could be material to Riske’s case. The Court held that the trial court should have granted Riske’s Pitchess motion and reviewed the relevant records in camera to determine if they should be produced.

Riske v. Superior Court (City of Los Angeles) (2016) 6 Cal.App.5th 647.

Note:

The Court in this case relied heavily on the California Supreme Court decision in Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz (2014) 60 Cal.4th 624, which we discussed in the December 2014 Client Update. Stiglitz held that hearing officers have the authority to rule on Pitchess motions. The Supreme Court also rejected the Sheriff’s Department argument in that case that the peace officer records were not discoverable because the officer did not have any involvement in the claimed injury. The Court noted that Evidence Code section 1047, which protects from discovery records of officers who were not present at the time of arrest, who did not contact the party until booking, or who were not present at the time conduct allegedly occurred within a jail facility, does not apply if the discovery request is not related to an arrest.

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