Gavel-and-Flag.jpgThis post was authored by Alex Polishuk.

On December 1, 2014, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz, ruling that a hearing officer in an administrative appeal hearing has the authority to rule on a Pitchess motion for discovery of peace officer personnel records. The Court largely relied on the phrasing of California Evidence Code section 1043 which expressly allows Pitchess motions to be filed with an appropriate “administrative body.”

The underlying facts of the case involve Kristy Drinkwater, a former correctional deputy with the County, who was terminated for falsifying time records in order to obtain unearned compensation.  Per the terms of an applicable memorandum of understanding, Ms. Drinkwater appealed her termination to a hearing officer, Jan Stiglitz.  During the appeal hearing, Drinkwater submitted a Pitchess motion to Stiglitz requesting discovery of disciplinary records of other sworn personnel who were investigated for similar misconduct but allegedly received less discipline.  Initially, Stiglitz denied the motion because Drinkwater did not identify the employees whose records were sought.  In a renewed motion, Drinkwater identified the employees by name and sought only redacted records.  Stiglitz found good cause and ordered production. The County filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate seeking to compel Stiglitz to vacate his decision.  However, shortly before the trial court was set to rule on the writ petition, the Court of Appeal decided Brown v. Valverde (2010), holding that Pitchess discovery of confidential peace officer personnel records is not available in a DMV administrative license suspension hearing.  Relying on Brown, the County argued that only a judicial officer may rule on a Pitchess motion.  The trial court agreed with the County and Drinkwater and her union appealed.  The Court of Appeal reversed and ruled that a hearing officer in an administrative appeal of the dismissal of a correctional officer has the authority to rule on a Pitchess motion.  Now the Supreme Court has affirmed the Court of Appeal’s ruling.

At the root of the Supreme Court’s lengthy and detailed decision is the language of the Pitchess statutes, i.e. Evidence Code sections 1043 and 1045.  The Court explains that a Pitchess motion consists of a two-step process.  First, Evidence Code section 1043 requires the moving party to establish good cause for discovery of the requested records, which are confidential under Penal Code section 832.7. Next, if good cause is established, Evidence Code section 1045 requires an in camera hearing, i.e. a private review, to determine the relevance of the requested documents.  Notably, Section 1045 repeatedly refers to “the court” as the entity that must conduct the in camera review, determine relevance, and issue appropriate protective orders.

In its decision, the Supreme Court stresses that the inclusion of the term “administrative body” in Section 1043 reflects the Legislature’s intent that administrative hearing officers are authorized to rule on Pitchess motions.   The Court explains that the repeated use of the term “court” in Section 1045, cannot nullify the term “” in Section 1043.   The Court remarks that “[i]f the Legislature intended that only the superior court could rule on Pitchess motions, it could easily have said so.”  The Court also takes the position that if an administrative hearing officer could not rule on a Pitchess motion then Section 1043 authorizes an “idle act,” i.e. filing a motion with a body not authorized to rule on it.  The Court adds that had the Legislature intended that Pitchess motions could only be conducted in the superior court, it could have but did not provide a mechanism to transfer a motion from an administrative proceeding to the superior courts.  The Court ruled that by permitting filing with an appropriate administrative body in Evidence Code section 1043, the Legislature intended to allow administrative hearing officers to decide such motions without court intervention.

Additionally, the Court remarks that its conclusion is consistent with the purpose of the POBRA, which is to provide peace officers an opportunity to administratively appeal an adverse employment decision.  The Court also states that its ruling was in line with the Pitchess scheme of providing a balance of interest between a litigant’s discovery interest with an officer’s confidentiality interest.