California Supreme Court: Arbitrators May Rule on Pitchess Motions

In Pitchess, the California Supreme Court (the “Court”) held that, upon good cause, a criminal defendant can obtain law enforcement personnel records.  In 1978, the California Legislature codified this process by adding a series of statutes to the Evidence Code.  In Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz (Drinkwater), December 1, 2014, Case No. S206350, the Court held that these statutes authorize an arbitrator (and not just a judge) to order the review of law enforcement personnel records.

What is a Pitchess motion?

The request to obtain law enforcement personnel records pursuant to the 1978 statutes in the Evidence Code is commonly called a “Pitchess motion.” Once a Pitchess motion is filed, the court or hearing officer orders an in camera review of the personnel records if the court finds that the person filing the motion has shown good cause. If the court or hearing officer determines that the records relate to and are relevant to the matter at hand, the court or hearing officer will order disclosure of the relevant record.

What are the facts of the case?

Deputy Kristy Drinkwater (“Drinkwater”), a union member, was fired by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (the “Department”) for falsifying her payroll forms. The memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) between the Department and the union provided for an administrative appeal. An appeal was filed and an arbitrator was selected by the Department and Drinkwater.

During the appeal, Drinkwater sought discovery of the Department’s personnel records by filing a Pitchess motion with the arbitrator. Drinkwater argued that the records would show disparate  treatment by the Department because other employees also falsified their payroll forms but were not terminated. The arbitrator ordered production of the officers’ records for an in camera review.

The Department filed for a writ of administrative mandate with the Superior Court. In other words, it asked the trial court to tell the arbitrator that his order was beyond his authority. The Superior Court agreed and granted the Department’s mandate petition. Drinkwater appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed the Superior Court’s decision. The Department appealed to the California Supreme Court.

How did the Supreme Court rule?

A majority of the Supreme Court held that the Evidence Code permitted hearing officers, such as the arbitrator, to rule on Pitchess motions. The Court rejected the Department’s argument that the Evidence Code only permitted the superior court to rule on such motions.

In its decision, the Court struggled to reconcile Evidence Code sections 1043 and 1045. Section 1043 provides that “the party seeking the discovery or disclosure [of a peace office record] shall file a written motion with the appropriate court or administrative body.” (Emphasis added.) However, section 1045, which governs the procedure for in camera review, only refers to such review by “the court.” In an effort to harmonize sections 1043 and 1045, a majority of the Supreme Court held that the phrase “the court” in section 1045 also included “administrative bodies” such as an arbitrator.