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California Supreme Court Confirms that Police Departments May Disclose Information in an Officer’s Personnel File in Limited Circumstances

August 30, 2019
The California Supreme Court issued a decision last week in a case challenging the legality of a common practice amongst law enforcement agencies — to disclose to prosecutors the names of officers appearing on a so-called “Brady list."
In a carefully crafted opinion, the Court upheld such disclosures when “a peace officer on that list is a potential witness in a pending criminal prosecution.”

Brady refers to a decision issued by the United States Supreme Court over half a century ago — Brady v. Maryland, in which the Court held that a prosecutor in a criminal case has a constitutional obligation to disclose to the defense certain evidence that is favorable to the defendant.  Such evidence may include information from an officer’s personnel file that would tend to discredit the officer’s testimony, such as evidence of prior perjury or dishonesty. 

In California, however, state statutes commonly known as the Pitchess statutes generally provide that officers’ personnel files are confidential. Except for certain categories of information deemed nonconfidential by SB 1421, which went into effect earlier this year, police departments cannot disclose the files or the information within them even to prosecutors, unless the statutory Pitchess procedures are followed.

To strike a balance between the prosecutor's disclosure obligation under Brady and the officer's right of privacy under the Pitchess statutes, the Los Angeles Police Department — like many police departments throughout California — maintains a list of the names of officers' who have potential Brady material in their personnel files, so they can alert the prosecutor when an officer on that list may be called as a witness in a pending proceeding. 

In a unanimous opinion, the California Supreme Court upheld this practice, finding that it strikes the proper balance between the competing interests underlying Brady and the Pitchess statutes.  Specifically, the court concluded “the Department does not violate [the Pitchess statutes] by sharing with prosecutors the fact that an officer, who is a potential witness in a pending criminal prosecution, may have relevant exonerating or impeaching material in that officer’s confidential personnel file.”

The Court's ruling is consistent with the careful approach urged by the League in its friend-of-the-court-brief, drafted by Jennifer Buckman of the law firm of Bartkiewicz, Kronick & Shanahan. 

Cities who have questions about the impact of the Court's ruling on their city should consult with their city attorney.

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