California Lawmakers Pass Bill To Increase Law Enforcement Transparency

Last Friday, California lawmakers passed a bill to increase law enforcement transparency. Specifically, Senate Bill 1421, as amended, passed in both the Senate and California State Assembly. The Bill was principally authored by Senators Nancy Skinner and Ricardo Lara. The Bill will be introduced to Governor Brown for signature.

The Bill calls to amend two California laws that keep certain law enforcement personnel records private and confidential. Surprisingly, California has some of the most restrictive laws when it comes to the ability to obtain records of public law enforcement employees. One would expect California, as progressive as it is on most issues, to have liberal laws for the free dissemination of records of public concern. This is not the case however.

The Bill will amend California Penal Code Sections 832.7 and 832.8. Penal code section 832.7(a) sets forth “Peace officer or custodial officer personnel records and records maintained by any state or local agency pursuant to Section 832.5, or information obtained from these records, are confidential and shall not be disclosed in any criminal or civil proceeding except by discovery pursuant to Sections 1043 and 1046 of the Evidence Code.” The evidence code sections cited set forth a daunting procedure to obtain any such records of a law enforcement officer.

These evidence code sections require a motion with special notice and establish an evidentiary burden to obtain the documents. Specifically, good cause and the materiality of the documents to the issues in the case must be established. Once this is established, then such documents are subject to an in-camera review by the court that will then determine which documents should be produced.

Such motions have come to be known as Pitchess Motions. The name derives from the seminal case, Pitchess v. Superior Court, that eventually led to the statutory framework as it currently exists—but that will soon be changed when Senate Bill 1421 is enacted. Pitchess motions are important in certain state civil and criminal cases. They do not apply in federal court civil cases since it is a state rule which the federal courts are not required to follow.

Senate Bill 1421, once passed, will require disclosure of certain law enforcement personnel records by the making of a simple California Public Records Act request. Specifically, records, reports, investigations and findings involving: the discharge of a firearm at a person, a use of force that resulted in death or great bodily injury, sexual assault findings, findings of dishonesty with respect to reporting, investigation or prosecution, perjury, false reporting, concealing evidence, destruction of evidence, falsifying evidence, among other serious acts of police misconduct.

Our firm specializes in civil rights cases involving law enforcement misconduct. These cases can include claims for: excessive force, police brutality, First Amendment retaliation, unlawful search and seizure, wrongful arrest, unlawful detention, prisoner abuse, deliberate indifference to medical needs, cruel and unusual punishment, malicious prosecution, among other claims. The ability to obtain personnel records are critical in these cases. Often times, an offending law enforcement officer has a history of wrongful acts and a pattern of repeated violations.

Of particular interest is how this new legislation will affect strategic decision making in the handling of civil rights cases. Customarily, our law firm brings civil rights cases in Federal court to avoid the difficulty in obtaining law enforcement personnel files encountered in state Court. As stated above, obtaining personnel files and law enforcement records in Federal court is not subject to the difficult processes that California State Court previously required. If California state courts will now allow for the ability to easily obtain offending officer personnel files, it may be better to bring civil rights cases in state courts.

State court juries only require 9 of 12 jurors to vote in favor of a verdict. Federal juries require a unanimous jury. As such, obtaining a favorable jury verdict in state court is easier as a plaintiff is not subject to a lone holdout juror who may submarine his or her case.

If you or a loved one were victimized by law enforcement misconduct, contact the Piccuta Law Group today. Our Monterey civil rights attorneys will evaluate your potential civil rights case and provide a free consultation at no charge.