Police personnel files containing prior disciplinary actions against an officer are confidential and protected from indiscriminate disclosure. However, a procedure exists for the disclosure of confidential police personnel files in the context of a criminal prosecution. The basis for the disclosure of certain portions of a police officer's personnel file rests with the landmark decision of Pitchess v. Superior Court, (1974) 11 Cal. 3d 531 and later codified by our legislature in Penal Code sections 832.7 and 832.8 and Evidence Code sections 1043 through 1047.
The Pitchess decision resulted from an accused defendant, who was charged with committing battery against deputy sheriffs, relying on a self-defense claim and asserting that he was entitled to discover the deputy sheriffs’ personnel records. The Defendant sought those records to try and prove that the deputy sheriffs had previously used excessive force and exhibited a propensity to do so as evidenced by complaints in their personnel file.
The Pitchess Court painstakingly went through a detailed analysis of the accused’s right to a fair trial and access to information to put on an constitutionally adequate defense. The delicate balancing between the government’s interest in maintaining privacy in police personnel files and the accused’s right to information was surmised by stating that the “requisite showing may be satisfied by general allegations which establish some cause for discovery other than a mere desire for the benefit of all information which has been obtained by the People in their investigation of the crime."
The Pitchess decision and subsequent enactment of evidentiary statues set up a comprehensive guide for the discovery of a peace officer’s personnel file in a criminal prosecution. However, some attorneys have attempted to extend the right to discover a peace officer’s file to civil actions. Indeed, in actions for child and/or spousal support, it has already been held that the discovery of payroll information for a peace officer is acceptable and not an undue invasion of the officer’s privacy.
However, in the case of Slayton v Superior Court, (12/2006), 146 Cal. App. 4th 55, the Court was asked to address discovery of non-financial information in a personnel file during a pending family law dissolution. In Slayton, the parties wed in 1992 and separated in 2005. They had three children, who were ages 8, 10, and 12 at the time the petition for dissolution of marriage was filed. Wife claimed she was the victim of domestic violence during the marriage. When the parties separated, husband was a sheriff's deputy for Sutter County.
According to a declaration filed by husband’s attorney in opposition to wife’s application for a restraining Order, husband said he was on administrative leave from the sheriff's department and that they were considering terminating him “due to allegations made by third parties as to his conduct as a sheriff's officer." Husband said “that his conduct toward some women in the community was at issue." Husband was ultimately terminated from the sheriff’s department. A temporary restraining Order issued protecting wife and her children from husband. Subsequent to the restraining Order, Husband was convicted of violating Penal Code section 646.9, subdivision (b) (stalking) against wife, and was released in April of 2006, after serving a one-year sentence. Husband represented that it was “believed" he was terminated from his employment for the conduct under investigation at the time he was placed on administrative leave, which was not related to the stalking offense.
Wife then sought husband's complete police personnel file, including information concerning his compensation as well as his disciplinary history, complaints made against him, the department's investigation of those complaints, and statements made about him by departmental personnel. Husband filed opposition, as did the Sutter County sheriff's department. The trial Court denied wife’s motion, stating that there was not a sufficient showing to delve into husband’s personal file, except to allow wife access to husband’s vacation, sick and retirement records. The Court found husband’s privacy rights were not outweighed by the wife’s need for the requested information, and declined to hold an “in camera" hearing to determine what, if any, records were relevant and subject to discovery by wife. Wife appealed the decision.
In reversing the trial Court, the appellate Court noted that one of the reasons wife sought husband’s personnel records was that child custody and visitation were at issue and that previous incidents of work-related violence were highly relevant, outweighing husband’s privacy interest in his personnel file. The Court placed special emphasis on wife’s claims that husband was abusive during their marriage and that husband had indicated his initial suspension was due to an investigation concerning citizen complaints against him, more specifically, complaints involving women.
Considering wife’s allegations, husband’s conduct and the fact that other women, in particular, may have filed complaints against him, there was reason to believe his personnel records could include evidence of violence or brutality that could bolster wife's claims of domestic violence or otherwise reflect on his fitness as a parent. It was held that the trial Court should have, at least, held an in camera review of the documents to determine what, if any, should be released to wife.
It seems that the Pitchess decision, although now 33 years old, is continuing to be interpreted and expanded into areas other than criminal law, where is was first applied. It will be interesting to see what, if any, other arenas the Pitchess decision is utilized in light of the Slayton decision.