A California “Pitchess motion”—described in Evidence Code 1043 and 1045 EC— is a request for information contained in a law enforcement officer's personnel file.1
Types of law enforcement officer misconduct that could support a Pitchess motion include:
- Use of excessive force,2
- Racial profiling,
- Coercing confessions,3 and/or
- Dishonesty in police reports.4
If you believe that the officers involved in your arrest engaged in misconduct—and that this misconduct had a material impact on the charges against you5—then a Pitchess motion can help turn up proof that they have a history of that sort of behavior.
Pitchess motion procedures and standards
The first step in the Pitchess motion process is for your attorney to file a written motion with the court handling your case. S/he must also provide written notice of the motion to the governmental agency that maintains the personnel records you are seeking.6
Among other things, the Pitchess motion must include
- A description of the type of records or information you are seeking, and
- Documents showing “good cause” for the records to be released to you.7
Then, if the judge determines that your Pitchess motion shows “good cause” for disclosing the officer personnel records, s/he will hold a private—“in camera”—hearing in which s/he decides which records are relevant to your case.8
How a Pitchess motion can help your criminal case
Depending on what the officer personnel records reveal, a successful Pitchess motion could persuade the prosecution to reduce—or even dismiss—one or more of your charges.
And even when the prosecutor doesn't choose to do so, the information could help you pursue
- a Penal Code 995 PC motion to set aside the information,9 or
- a Penal Code 1538.5 PC motion to suppress evidence.10
Below, our California criminal defense attorneys11 address the following:
If, after reading this article, you would like more information, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
Simply put, it makes sense to file a Pitchess motion if you think that police misconduct played a role in the charges against you.
A Pitchess motion is a motion to obtain information in a police or other law enforcement officer's personnel file.12
Normally, that information would be strictly confidential.13 But thanks to the 1974 California Supreme Court case of Pitchess v. Superior Court—and, eventually, sections 1043 through 1047 of the California Evidence Code—defendants in criminal cases are able to gain access to this information if it could be relevant to their defense.14
The information in an officer's personnel file may be relevant if you are defending yourself against criminal charges by asserting that the officer committed police misconduct against you. Forms of police misconduct that might justify a Pitchess motion include:
- Excessive force,15
- Racial profiling,
- Using force or other unacceptable means to extract a confession,16
- Lying in the police report about the behavior that led your arrest and charges,17 and
- Fabricating or planting evidence.
Obviously, if you are asserting any sort of police misconduct as a defense, then it could be very useful to know if those same officer(s) have been accused of similar forms of misconduct in the past. Their personnel files will contain information on any past complaints and investigations against them.18
Example: Howard is charged with Penal Code 148(a)(1) PC resisting arrest after a scuffle with two police officers. His lawyer files a Pitchess motion for information from the officers' personnel files, based on the theory that they may have used excessive force with Howard—and may have been the subject of excessive force complaints by other people in the past.19
Example: After a high-speed car chase by a police officer, Zane is charged with felony reckless evading under Vehicle Code 2800.2 VC. He files a Pitchess motion with his attorney, stating that he is looking for records that might support both 1) an argument that the officer who chased him used excessive force, AND 2) an argument that the officer lied about Zane's actions that led to his arrest.
The court denies the Pitchess motion to the extent it covers complaints about excessive force—because the officer's tendency toward excessive force would not have been relevant to his behavior during a car chase.
But the court grants the motion to the extent it covers evidence relevant to the officer's dishonesty—since the officer's testimony is key to the case against Zane.20
Evidence Code 1043 EC and 1045 EC—which outline the process for filing a Pitchess motion—are designed to balance the competing claims that:
- a criminal defendant is entitled to any information that is relevant to his/her defense, in order to help ensure a fair trial, and
- a law enforcement officer has a compelling interest in maintaining the privacy of his/her personnel file.21
Pitchess motions are filed during California pretrial proceedings. The judge will act on your Pitchess motion prior to the beginning of your criminal jury trial.
Your attorney may file the motion prior to your preliminary hearing—but there is no guarantee that the motion will be held prior to that hearing. In fact, these motions are typically acted upon after the preliminary hearing.
California law requires that criminal defense attorneys file their Pitchess motions in writing.22 Under Evidence Code 1043 EC, a Pitchess motion must include:
- Identification of the criminal court case, the defendant, the officer(s) whose records are being sought, and the governmental agency that has custody of the records;
- A description of the type of records that are being sought;
- An affidavit showing “good cause” for the disclosure of the records (this is often written and signed by the defendant's criminal defense attorney); and
- Proof that the defendant has notified the agency that holds the records of the motion.23
The affidavit showing “good cause” for disclosure of the officer personnel records is the most important part of a California Pitchess motion.
A showing of ‘good cause' exists if the affidavit sets forth both:
- a specific factual scenario that supports allegations of officer misconduct in the defendant's case, and
- reasons why the misconduct would be material to the defense case.24
Example: Wendell is arrested for attempted possession of a controlled substance after an undercover officer claims that Wendell tried to purchase drugs from him.
Wendell and his defense attorney file a Pitchess motion. The “good cause” affidavit asserts that, in fact, Wendell never tried to buy drugs from the officer, and the officer was simply lying.
The affidavit also explains that any information in the officer's personnel record that would establish a history of dishonesty and filing false reports would be helpful to Wendell's case.
The court decides that this affidavit is sufficient to show “good cause” for disclosure of the records under Evidence Code 1043 EC.25
It is acceptable for the affidavit to state that the defendant's criminal defense lawyer—who usually signs the affidavit—has “been informed and believes” that the officers in question engaged in police misconduct. The attorney signing the affidavit does not need to have first-hand or certain knowledge that the misconduct occurred.26
For police misconduct to be “material” to the defense case, there must be a logical link between the pending criminal charges and the proposed defense—and some reason why the requested information would make a material difference to the proposed defense.27
Example: Giovanni is 14 years old. Police officers confront him and a friend outside a party, conduct a pat-down search on him, and find that he is carrying a concealed screwdriver. Giovanni is then charged with carrying a concealed dirk or dagger.
The police report claims that the officers searched Giovanni because he appeared to be a minor violating a local curfew, and because he and his friend appeared to have just been in a fight.
Giovanni and his lawyers file a Pitchess motion requesting information from the officers' files that might establish a history of dishonesty. Their argument is that the officers may have been lying about the appearance of Giovanni and his friend—and that the search that turned up the screwdriver may have therefore been improper under California's search and seizure laws.
But the court rejects the motion—because even if the officers were lying about having reason to believe that Giovanni had been in a fight, they still had grounds to search him, since he was obviously a minor and was out after curfew.28
If the “good cause” affidavit and the rest of the Pitchess motion meet these requirements, then the motion is “granted”—and it moves on to the step described in Section 2.3 below.
As Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Ninaz Saffari29 explains,
“Even given these strict requirements, the threshold for this request is relatively low. Judges generally grant California Pitchess motions as long as the declaration or affidavit states a denial of the facts as they appear in the police report or states an alternative version of what “might” have occurred.”
The “granting” of the written motion is only the first step in the Pitchess motion process. The next step is a so-called “in camera” hearing conducted by the judge in your criminal case. (“In camera” means that the hearing is private rather than conducted in open court.)
During this hearing, the judge evaluates whether or not the information in the officer's personnel files is relevant to your defense claims. Only information that the judge determines is relevant will be disclosed to you.30
There are certain types of information that the judge cannot disclose to the defendant who files a Pitchess motion. These are:
- Information about complaints against the officer(s) that occurred more than five (5) years before the alleged police misconduct in the defendant's case,
- The personal conclusions (as opposed to the disciplinary action) of any other officer investigating a citizen's complaint against the officer(s), and
- Facts that are so remote that disclosing them would have little or no practical benefit.31
Example: Rachel has been charged with Penal Code 647(b) PC prostitution and solicitation after being arrested in a “sting” operation. Her main defense is that Officer Matthews, who arrested her, lied about what occurred while he was operating undercover and posing as a potential “john.”
Rachel and her attorney file a Pitchess motion to see if there is any information in Officer Matthews' file that would support her argument. The judge grants the motion and then reviews Officer Matthews' file at an in camera hearing.
The judge does find that Officer Matthews was investigated for lying in a police report—but that occurred almost 10 years ago. The judge also finds that Officer Matthews cheated on a test in police academy more than 20 years ago.
The judge does not turn over information on the investigation to Rachel and her lawyer because it occurred more than 5 years ago. He also does not provide them with information about Officer Matthews' cheating, since he deems that information too remote to be relevant to Rachel's defense.
Neither your criminal defense lawyer nor the prosecutor attends the Pitchess motion "in camera" hearing. The only people who typically attend are
- the officer whose records are being sought, and
- any other people the officer is willing to have present (usually the custodian of records for the police department).32
If the Pitchess motion is granted, and a hearing is held as described above, then the judge may find complaints against the officer in his/her personnel file—and deem those complaints relevant to your case.
If this happens, the judge usually will not turn over the documentation of the complaints themselves. Instead, the judge will give you and your criminal defense attorney the name and contact information of anyone who previously filed a complaint against that officer.33
Your defense attorney then will be able to contact these individuals to interview them about the facts and present them as possible witnesses.
But when this isn't possible—because the previous complainants are unavailable, or don't remember the incident that gave rise to the complaint—California law allows the defense to obtain the actual records of the earlier complaints.34
And if the judge orders disclosure of the officer's personnel records—but the agency that keeps the records refuses to comply with the court's orders—then the charges against you must be dismissed.35
If your Pitchess motion is unsuccessful initially—that is, the judge declines to conduct an in camera hearing to review the officer's files—then you are not out of luck. You may use the California criminal appeals process to appeal this decision.
If your Pitchess motion is denied—and you are then convicted of the charges against you—you can appeal your conviction arguing, in part, that your Pitchess motion should not have been denied because you showed “good cause” to gain access to the officer's personnel file.
If the appeals court judge agrees that your motion should not have been denied, then the next step is to determine whether you were prejudiced by the denial of the motion.36
This is accomplished by having your case sent back to the trial court—with orders to the trial judge to conduct an in camera hearing on your motion. If s/he finds no relevant information in the officer's personnel file, then your conviction will be affirmed.
But if the judge finds relevant information in the file, you will then be given a chance to argue that the lack of this information affected the outcome of your trial. If the judge agrees, your conviction may be overturned—and you will be given a new trial.37
The information you obtain from a successful Pitchess motion could persuade the prosecution to reduce—or even dismiss—one or more of the charges against you.
But when the prosecutor isn't so inclined, the relevant information could help you pursue other California criminal motions that could help your case.
For example, if your Pitchess motion is heard prior to or in connection with your preliminary hearing, and it is granted, you may then want to file a California Penal Code 995 PC motion to set aside the information—on the grounds that the evidence against you was improperly obtained because of police misconduct.38
Or you might file a California Penal Code 1538.5 PC motion to suppress evidence—again, on the grounds that the officer's misconduct has tainted certain evidence.39
If there has been a long delay between the filing of a complaint or information against you and the start of your trial, you may also be able to file a Serna ("speedy trial") motion, arguing that your constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated and the charges, therefore, need to be dismissed.
And on a final note, even if you do not prevail on a California Pitchess motion—or on your criminal case—police misconduct still could be the basis for what is known as a 1983 civil rights lawsuit. If successful, this type of civil suit entitles you to monetary damages from the officer and/or law enforcement agency.
Call us for help…
If you or a loved one is in need of help with Evidence Code 1043 and 1045 EC pitchess motions and you are looking to hire an attorney for representation, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group. We can provide a free consultation in office or by phone. We have local offices in Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Pasadena, Long Beach, Orange County, Ventura, San Bernardino, Rancho Cucamonga, Riverside, San Diego, Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and throughout California.
For more information about police misconduct in Nevada, please see our page on police misconduct in Nevada.
1 Evidence Code 1043 EC – Peace or custodial officer personnel records; discovery or disclosure; procedure [Pitchess motions]. (“(a) In any case in which discovery or disclosure is sought of peace or custodial officer personnel records or records maintained pursuant to Section 832.5 of the Penal Code or information from those records, the party seeking the discovery or disclosure shall file a written motion with the appropriate court or administrative body upon written notice to the governmental agency which has custody and control of the records. The written notice shall be given at the times prescribed by subdivision (b) of Section 1005 of the Code of Civil Procedure. Upon receipt of the notice the governmental agency served shall immediately notify the individual whose records are sought. (b) The motion shall include all of the following: (1) Identification of the proceeding in which discovery or disclosure is sought, the party seeking discovery or disclosure, the peace or custodial officer whose records are sought, the governmental agency which has custody and control of the records, and the time and place at which the motion for discovery or disclosure shall be heard. (2) A description of the type of records or information sought. (3) Affidavits showing good cause for the discovery or disclosure sought, setting forth the materiality thereof to the subject matter involved in the pending litigation and stating upon reasonable belief that the governmental agency identified has the records or information from the records. (c) No hearing upon a motion for discovery or disclosure shall be held without full compliance with the notice provisions of this section except upon a showing by the moving party of good cause for noncompliance, or upon a waiver of the hearing by the governmental agency identified as having the records.”)
See also Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531.
2 See Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531.
3 See People v. Memro (1985) 38 Cal.3d 658.
4 See People v. Hustead (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 410.
5 See Evidence Code 1043 EC – Pitchess motions, subsection (b)(3), endnote 1, above.
6 Evidence Code 1043 EC – Pitchess motions, endnote 1, above.
7 See same.
8 Evidence Code 1045 EC – Peace or custodial officers; access to records of complaints, investigations of complaints, or discipline imposed; relevancy; protective orders [Pitchess motion hearings]. (“(a) Nothing in this article shall be construed to affect the right of access to records of complaints, or investigations of complaints, or discipline imposed as a result of those investigations, concerning an event or transaction in which the peace officer or custodial officer, as defined in Section 831.5 of the Penal Code, participated, or which he or she perceived, and pertaining to the manner in which he or she performed his or her duties, provided that information is relevant to the subject matter involved in the pending litigation. (b) In determining relevance, the court shall examine the information in chambers in conformity with Section 915, and shall exclude from disclosure: (1) Information consisting of complaints concerning conduct occurring more than five years before the event or transaction that is the subject of the litigation in aid of which discovery or disclosure is sought. (2) In any criminal proceeding the conclusions of any officer investigating a complaint filed pursuant to Section 832.5 of the Penal Code. (3) Facts sought to be disclosed that are so remote as to make disclosure of little or no practical benefit. (c) In determining relevance where the issue in litigation concerns the policies or pattern of conduct of the employing agency, the court shall consider whether the information sought may be obtained from other records maintained by the employing agency in the regular course of agency business which would not necessitate the disclosure of individual personnel records. (d) Upon motion seasonably made by the governmental agency which has custody or control of the records to be examined or by the officer whose records are sought, and upon good cause showing the necessity thereof, the court may make any order which justice requires to protect the officer or agency from unnecessary annoyance, embarrassment or oppression. (e) The court shall, in any case or proceeding permitting the disclosure or discovery of any peace or custodial officer records requested pursuant to Section 1043, order that the records disclosed or discovered may not be used for any purpose other than a court proceeding pursuant to applicable law.”)
9 Penal Code 995 PC – Grounds; motion to set aside; delay in ruling [may be filed after a successful Pitchess motion]. (“(a) Subject to subdivision (b) of Section 995a, the indictment or information shall be set aside by the court in which the defendant is arraigned, upon his or her motion, in either of the following cases: (1) If it is an indictment: (A) Where it is not found, endorsed, and presented as prescribed in this code. (B) That the defendant has been indicted without reasonable or probable cause. (2) If it is an information: (A) That before the filing thereof the defendant had not been legally committed by a magistrate. (B) That the defendant had been committed without reasonable or probable cause. (b) In cases in which the procedure set out in subdivision (b) of Section 995a is utilized, the court shall reserve a final ruling on the motion until those procedures have been completed.”)
10 Penal Code 1538.5 PC – Motion to return property or suppress evidence [may be filed after a successful Pitchess motion]. (“(a)(1) A defendant may move for the return of property or to suppress as evidence any tangible or intangible thing obtained as a result of a search or seizure on either of the following grounds: (A) The search or seizure without a warrant was unreasonable. (B) The search or seizure with a warrant was unreasonable because any of the following apply: (i) The warrant is insufficient on its face. (ii) The property or evidence obtained is not that described in the warrant. (iii) There was not probable cause for the issuance of the warrant. (iv) The method of execution of the warrant violated federal or state constitutional standards. (v) There was any other violation of federal or state constitutional standards.”)
11 Our California criminal defense attorneys have local Los Angeles law offices in Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Pomona, Torrance, Van Nuys, West Covina, and Whittier. We have additional law offices conveniently located throughout the state in Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
12 Evidence Code 1043 EC – Pitchess motions, endnote 1, above.
13 Evidence Code 832.7 EC – Personnel records [the type of information that may be sought with a Pitchess motion]. (“(a) 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. This section shall not apply to investigations or proceedings concerning the conduct of peace officers or custodial officers, or an agency or department that employs those officers, conducted by a grand jury, a district attorney's office, or the Attorney General's office. . . . (f) Nothing in this section shall affect the discovery or disclosure of information contained in a peace or custodial officer's personnel file pursuant to Section 1043 of the Evidence Code.”)
14 Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531. See also Evidence Code 1043 EC – Pitchess motions, endnote 1, above.
15 See same.
16 See People v. Memro, endnote 3, above.
17 See People v. Hustead, endnote 4, above.
18 Evidence Code 832.8 EC – Personnel records [may be disclosed in response to a Pitchess motion]. (“As used in Section 832.7, “personnel records” means any file maintained under that individual's name by his or her employing agency and containing records relating to any of the following: (a) Personal data, including marital status, family members, educational and employment history, home addresses, or similar information. (b) Medical history. (c) Election of employee benefits. (d) Employee advancement, appraisal, or discipline. (e) Complaints, or investigations of complaints, concerning an event or transaction in which he or she participated, or which he or she perceived, and pertaining to the manner in which he or she performed his or her duties. (f) Any other information the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”)
19 Based on City of Santa Cruz v. Municipal Court (1989) 49 Cal.3d 74.
20 Based on People v. Hustead, endnote 4, above.
21 Garcia v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 63, 72. (“The Pitchess process itself requires the balancing of an accused's need for disclosure and the officer's expectation of privacy.”)
22 Evidence Code 1043 EC – Pitchess motions, endnote 1, above.
23 See same.
24 Giovanni B. v. Superior Court (2007) 152 Cal.App.4th 312, 319.
25 Based on People v. Johnson (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 292.
26 City of Santa Cruz v. Municipal Court, endnote 19, above, at 85-86.
27 Giovanni B. v. Superior Court, endnote 24, above.
28 Based on the facts of the same.
29 Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Ninaz Saffari is a veteran of the public defender's offices of San Francisco County and Los Angeles. She has conducted dozens of jury trials and juvenile adjudication hearings, defending everything from sex crimes to California firearms cases, and is an expert on California pretrial and evidentiary motions, including Pitchess motions. Thanks to a cosmopolitan background, Ms. Saffari is fluent in Farsi (Persian) and German.
30 Evidence Code 1045 EC – Hearings on Pitchess motions, endnote 8, above.
31 See same.
32 People v. Woolman (1974) 40 Cal.App.3d 652, 654-655. (“Present at the in camera hearing [on the California Pitchess motion] were the trial judge, his clerk and reporter, an assistant city attorney and the police officer witness who was the custodian of the official file involved. Neither defense nor prosecution were represented. In spite of the dicta in People v. Superior Court ( Biggs) (1971) 19 Cal.App.3d 522 [97 Cal.Rptr. 118], we see nothing wrong in that procedure. To require an adversary hearing with counsel would destroy, at the outset, the very privilege that the hearing is designed to protect.”)
33 City of Santa Cruz v. Municipal Court, endnote 19, above, at 84. (“As a further safeguard, moreover, the courts have generally refused to disclose verbatim reports or records of any kind from peace officer personnel files [in response to a California Pitchess motion], ordering instead (as the municipal court directed here) that the agency reveal only the name, address and phone number of any prior complainants and witnesses and the dates of the incidents in question.”)
34 Alvarez v. Superior Court (2004) 117 Cal.App.4th 1107, 1112. (“Nonetheless, the practice of disclosing only the name of the complainant and contact information must yield to the requirement of providing sufficient information to prepare for a fair trial. For example, in Pitchess, supra, 11 Cal.3d 531, 113 Cal.Rptr. 897, 522 P.2d 305, two individuals who had filed complaints against the deputy sheriffs were unavailable for interview by defense counsel. In addition, two other complainants could not recall the details of the events. ( Id. at p. 537, 113 Cal.Rptr. 897, 522 P.2d 305.) Given that showing, the Supreme Court held disclosure of additional information was required. Disclosure of the prior statements given by the unavailable complainants to the sheriff's investigators was “necessary for effective cross-examination.” And disclosure of the sheriff's records was “necessary to refresh [the] recollection” of the individuals who could not remember the operative events. ( Ibid.) The Pitchess court reasoned that the defendant “cannot be held responsible for [the complainants'] unavailability or lack of memory, and he has no access to the sheriff's investigative records. Furthermore, the information which defendant seeks may have considerable significance to the preparation of his defense, and the documents have been requested with adequate specificity to preclude the possibility that defendant is engaging in a ‘fishing expedition.' We therefore conclude that defendant demonstrated sufficient good cause under the appropriate standards of criminal procedure, as developed in case authority, to warrant the trial court in compelling discovery.”)
35 Dell M. v. Superior Court, In and For Los AngelesCounty (1977) 70 Cal.App.3d 782, 786. (“We therefore hold that if the trial court declines to exercise its contempt powers, or if the exercise of those powers proves ineffective to bring about sufficient compliance with a discovery order made after a claim of privilege (Evid.Code, s 1040) has been overruled, the charges to which the material sought to be discovered [in a California Pitchess motion] pertains must be dismissed.”)
36 People v. Hustead, endnote 4, above, at 418. (“Finding the trial court erred in failing to provide an in camera review [based on the Pitchess motion] does not end the analysis; appellant must also demonstrate he was prejudiced from the denial of discovery.”)
37 See same, at 419. (“Therefore, we will remand the case to the trial court to conduct an in camera hearing on the discovery motion [the Pitchess motion]. If there is no discoverable information in the file, then the trial court is ordered to reinstate the original judgment and sentence, and the judgment is ordered affirmed. ( People v. Gill, supra, 60 Cal.App.4th at p. 751.) If, however, there is relevant discoverable information in the officer's file, we disagree withGill's conclusion that a new trial is necessarily required. Instead, appellant should be given an opportunity to determine if the information would have led to any relevant, admissible evidence that he could have presented at trial. (See People v. Memro, supra, 38 Cal.3d at p. 684 [“It is settled that an accused must demonstrate that prejudice resulted from a trial court's error in denying discovery.”].) If appellant is able to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the denial of the discovery, the trial court should order a new trial. If appellant is unable to show any prejudice, then the conviction is ordered reinstated, and the judgment is ordered affirmed.”)
38 Penal Code 995 PC – Grounds; motion to set aside; delay in ruling [may be filed after a successful Pitchess motion], endnote 9, above.
39 Penal Code 1538.5 PC – Motion to return property or suppress evidence [may be filed after a successful Pitchess motion], endnote 10, above.