On July 11, 2017, the California Court of Appeal’s unreported decision in Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff’s v. Superior Court examined the interplay between the United States Supreme Court case of Brady v. Maryland and the California Supreme Court case of Pitchess v. Superior Court. The Court held that, in the absence of a granted Pitchess motion, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department ("LASD") was prohibited from disclosing the identities of individual deputies compiled on an internal Brady list to the district attorney or other prosecutorial agencies, even when the deputies were also potential witnesses in a pending criminal prosecution.
The Brady decision generally held that constitutional due process created an affirmative obligation on the part of the prosecution to disclose all evidence within its possession that is exculpatory to a criminal defendant, including impeachment evidence. This obligation extended to the other members of the prosecution team, including law enforcement. Eleven years after Brady was decided, Pitchess held that a defendant may discover information regarding a peace officer’s personnel file relevant to the defense upon an adequate showing. After the Pitchess decision was codified, the current statutory scheme generally requires a defendant to file a written motion and establish good cause for discovery of otherwise confidential peace officer records, also known as a Pitchess motion. If good cause is shown, the trial court will review the personnel records in camera and disclose any relevant information to the defendant.
In Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff’s v. Superior Court, the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the nearly 40 year-old California statutory scheme was predicated upon an attempt by the LASD to comply with its disclosure obligations under Brady. After the LASD convened a Commander’s Panel in October 2016 to review individual deputy personnel files, it identified those individual deputies who had founded allegations of misconduct. In order to meet its perceived Brady obligations, the LASD proposed to send a Brady list of those identified deputies by name and serial number to the agencies that prosecuted those matters investigated by the LASD.
The LASD advised each affected deputy that their individual name and serial number would be provided to the district attorney and other relevant prosecuting agencies. However, the individual deputies were also notified that records of the investigations into their misconduct and/or their personnel files would not be made available absent a granted Pitchess motion.
In November 2016, the Association for Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) filed a petition for writ of mandate and sought injunctive relief, including an order that would prohibit the LASD from disclosing the Brady list or the identity of any individual deputy on the list to the district attorney or other prosecuting agency without a court order obtained pursuant to Pitchess.
The trial court observed that the LASD had a statutory obligation to protect the confidentiality of the peace officers’ personnel records, which cannot be disclosed to any third party absent compliance with Pitchess motion requirements. However, the trial court also noted that Brady affixed constitutional disclosure obligations on the prosecution and the prosecuting team, including law enforcement. The trial court concluded that the LASD’s plan to disseminate the Brady list generally ran afoul of Pitchess, and was not constitutionally compelled by Brady because the disclosure was not tied to particular deputies involved as potential witnesses. The trial court concluded that the LASD was entitled to prepare its own Brady list, but was only constitutionally required to disclose those deputies from the list who were involved as witnesses in an actual criminal prosecution. The trial court concluded that when a deputy on the list was a potential witness in a pending prosecution, Brady created a federal constitutional disclosure obligation that overrode the state-created confidentiality restrictions of Pitchess.
Ultimately, the trial court’s preliminary injunction enjoined the parties from "(1) disclosing the Brady list as a whole to any party outside the LASD, (2) disclosing the identify of any individual deputy on the Brady list to any party outside the LASD, except a relevant prosecutorial agency, and then only if the deputy is a potential witness in a pending criminal prosecution, and (3) except as provided in (2) above, disclosing the identity of any individual deputy on the Brady list to any party outside the LASD, including prosecutorial agencies, unless compelled by a court order issued after a properly filed and heard Brady or Pitchess motion."
The Appellate Court’s Reasoning
The California Court of Appeal noted that the trial court’s finding that constitutional due process, as construed in Brady, required a violation of state law, as there was an affirmative disclosure obligation that overode the confidentiality protections of Pitchess. As such, the Court of Appeal reasoned that in order to affirm the trial court’s decision, it would need to find that the procedures required by the Pitchess statutes were unconstitutional when a deputy on the Brady list was also a potential witness in a pending criminal prosecution.
Ultimately, however, the Court of Appeal did not find the Pitchess statutes to be unconstitutional, noting that the California Supreme Court had previously observed that the Pitchess statutes did not violate Brady or due process, but rather supplemented both. The Court of Appeal explained that the disclosure obligation under Brady and constitutional due process have now coexisted with a defendant’s good cause burden under Pitchess for nearly 40 years, and the Court was unaware of any reported cases that found that the Pitchess requirements contravened Brady. As such, the Court of Appeal determined that the law supported ALADS’s contention that the individual identities of the deputies could not be disclosed in the absence of a granted Pitchess motion, regardless of whether they were potential witnesses in a pending criminal matter.
As to the creating and maintaining of the Brady list, the Court found that the Pitchess process did not prohibit the internal collection of data based upon events found to have occurred after an investigation and administrative hearing. As such, the Court found that there was no violation of Pitchess where the LASD created a summary or categorization of information already contained in those personnel records.
What the Case Means for Employers
While the Court did not take issue with the compiling of an internal Brady list, the disclosure of the identities of peace officers on the list should be done with caution. The California Court of Appeal agreed that an agency is precluded from disclosing the identity of anyone on a Brady list absent complete compliance with the Pitchess statutes.