Pitchess motion

A Pitchess motion is a request made by the defense in a California criminal case, such as a DUI case or a resisting arrest case, to access a law enforcement officer’s personnel information when the defendant alleges in an affidavit that the officer used excessive force or lied about the events surrounding the defendant’s arrest. The information provided will include prior incidents of use of force, allegations of excessive force, citizen complaints, and information gathered during the officer’s pre-employment background investigation. The motion’s name comes from the case Pitchess v. Superior Court.[1]

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The story of Pitchess v. Superior Court is somewhat convoluted. The Los Angeles County Sheriff, Peter J. Pitchess, along with members of his administrative staff, are the case’s petitioners, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is the respondent, with César Echeverría as the real party in interest. Sheriff Pitchess had sought a writ of mandate to compel the Superior Court to quash its subpoena duces tecum, requiring for Pitchess’s office to produce documents for a trial in which Echeverría was named as defendant. The defendant was then being charged of four felony counts of assaulting four sheriff’s deputies. However, immediately following the incident, he was in an intensive care unit, and the officers themselves had sustained no serious injuries.

Attorney Miguel F. García wished to obtain evidence from the Sheriff’s Office on records of complaints by the public about the propensity of the deputies to use excessive force. The Sheriff’s Office had flatly refused to provide such documents. García had then convinced a court to issue a subpoena for them, and the Sheriff’s Office, in the form of Sheriff Pitchess, petitioned the Court of Appeals to hold a hearing to have the subpoena quashed.

The petition was unusual, as it came directly from the county sheriff and so the Court of Appeals readily agreed to hear the petition.[2]:p.45

The Court found, however, that although such records could be classified as discoverable by García, they had to contain complaints that were sustained by the police department itself before they could be provided. In other words, the police department must have a record of a deputy’s propensity for or acts of abuse that were substantiated by the department itself.[2]:p.45

García then petitioned the State Supreme Court to uphold the subpoena, which it did in a 7-0 ruling.

The Pitchess motion is now one of the 15 or 20 most common motions filed in criminal court in California.[2]:p.47

A defendant’s right to information about alleged officer misconduct or dishonesty thus providing information for witness impeachment has since been established by statute in California in sections 1043 to 1047 of the California Evidence Code.[3][4]

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