California High Court: Police Misconduct Files Are Not Private

(CN) – The California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that police departments statewide can tell prosecutors about an officer’s history of misconduct when the officer is set to testify in a criminal case.

California Supreme Court headquarters in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Coolcaesar/Wikipedia)

The decision overturns a 2017 ruling by the Second Appellate District, which held the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department could not reveal to prosecutors the names of 300 problem officers who were potential witnesses in pending criminal matters.

Under the landmark 1963 U.S Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, a prosecutor must disclose to defense attorneys any evidence that is favorable to defendants or that would change the outcome of a case.

The department’s Brady list includes officers who’ve committed various infractions, including theft, domestic violence and use of excessive force.

The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs opposed the department’s plan, arguing disclosure would violate officers’ privacy rights under Pitchess v. Superior Court, a landmark California case involving the LA sheriff that gave criminal defendants the right to request relevant personnel files of the arresting officer.

But the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that ensuring a defendant’s rights to a fair trial – and access to pertinent evidence in an arresting officer’s personnel file – outweighs concerns about an officer’s privacy rights.

“To say that the prosecutor need not disclose that information merely because it was not ‘obtained during’ investigation of the defendant’s case would be irreconcilable with the right to a fair trial underlying Brady; it would ‘cast the prosecutor in the role of an architect of a proceeding that does not comport with standards of justice,’” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in a 33-page opinion.

The high court also found California Assembly Bill 1421, a new law requiring public access to police misconduct records, lifts confidentiality on police records previously barred from disclosure.

“If the records are not confidential, then information ‘obtained from’ those records is also not confidential,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “Nor can we say that a Brady list that includes both confidential and nonconfidential information melds into a single, nonconfidential whole.”

The court declined to address whether officers’ privacy rights are violated when a prosecutor shares an alert about an officer on the Brady list with defense attorneys.

Justices Joshua Groban, Goodwin H. Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Ming W. Chin and Carol A. Corrigan joined in the opinion.

Brian K. Williams, executive director of the LASD Civilian Oversight Commission, applauded the ruling.

“We are pleased with the decision of the higher court. The ruling places priority on due process over the state’s peace officer privacy laws,” Williams said in an email. “Transparency regarding officer credibility is critical to prosecutors and defense attorneys to ensure a fair process and avoid wrongful convictions. This decision supports best practice reforms and will have an impact on law enforcement agencies throughout the state.”

In a lengthy statement, the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs called Brady lists “a direct product of a flawed disciplinary process which may be filled with bias, grudges, faulty analysis and outright misrepresentation” that has “plagued the sheriff’s department for decades.”

But the association noted the high court’s decision is limited to pending criminal prosecutions and said it will abide by the ruling “even as we recognize that some LASD administrators – current and prior – do not.”

In a statement, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said his department will also comply with the court’s decision, but noted the district attorney – not his department – is responsible for creating and maintaining the Brady list.

“Because the Sheriff’s Department understands the needs of the community, we plan on sitting down with the district attorney to work out an effective, efficient, transparent and open process for turning over the information,” Villanueva said. “We want to effectively and consistently ensure all defendants’ rights to due process are honored, which includes providing all exculpatory evidence as outlined in Brady v. Maryland.”

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