Fletcher v. Superior Court

Citation123 Cal.Rptr.2d 99,100 Cal.App.4th 386
Decision Date19 July 2002
Docket NumberNo. A096372.,A096372.
PartiesChristopher FLETCHER, Petitioner, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Alameda County, Respondent; Oakland Police Department, Real Party in Interest.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals

Diane A. Bellas, Public Defender County of Alameda for Petitioner.

Adrienne A. Elenteny, Public Defender County of Alameda for Petitioner.

No appearance for Respondent.

John A Russo, City Attorney, Randolph W. Hall, Assistant City Attorney, Kathleen Salem-Boyd, Deputy City Attorney for Real Party in Interest.

LAMBDEN, J.

In this case we consider whether the procedure first described in Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531, 113 Cal.Rptr 897, 522 P.2d 305 (Pitchess) permits discovery of the fact that an arresting officer previously worked for another law enforcement agency. We conclude that nothing in the statutory scheme which codified the principles set forth in Pitchess precludes disclosure of the length of an officer's present employment or potentially relevant facts relating to law enforcement employment other than the officer's current job. Accordingly, we direct the trial court to vacate its prior order and to conduct further proceedings to determine whether the real party in interest has information pertaining to these officers' history of law enforcement employment that can lead to evidence potentially relevant to the petitioner's defense.

BACKGROUND

Christopher Fletcher (petitioner) is charged with unlawfully resisting, delaying or obstructing a police officer in violation of Penal Code section 148, a misdemeanor. Petitioner pled not guilty to the charge and filed a Pitchess motion pursuant to Evidence Code section 1043 (for discovery of certain information from the arresting officers' personnel files). The Oakland Police Department (hereinafter OPD) opposed the motion. (Further statutory references are to the Evidence Code, unless otherwise noted.)

The trial court found that petitioner had made a showing of materiality that was sufficient to permit discovery of prior complaints of excessive force or violence, as well as potential evidence suggestive of fabrication of facts by the arresting officers. Thereafter, the trial court conducted an in camera inspection of the officers' personnel files and ordered that certain matters described in the files should be disclosed to the petitioner. The information provided to petitioner stemmed from incidents in 1999 and 2000.

Petitioner also argued that he was entitled to discovery of prior employment by other police agencies within the five-year time limitation provided by section 1045, subdivision (b)(1). In order to extend the Pitchess procedure to other agencies which might have discoverable information within the parameters of Pitchess, petitioner requested an order seeking: "10) Disclosure of subject officer[s'] employment at other police departments or agencies within five years of the date of the event or transaction which is the subject of the above-entitled litigation. (Evidence Code sections 1045, 1043.)" The OPD objected and argued that all information contained in its files pertaining to prior employment by other law enforcement agencies was privileged and could not be disclosed, as a matter of law.

The trial court sustained the OPD's objection as follows: "Then the issue is, well, is there a sufficient finding nevertheless for disclosure of that [other law enforcement employment within five years] because often sensitive information is disclosed pursuant to a Pitchess motion? For the finding of materiality, that seems to have ... taken place by the requirement of a specific factual scenario under the law. And that specific factual scenario is sort of made in the context of the employment within a local agency under the strictures, personnel policies and so forth of the local agency. And there is, I think, the danger, which certainly wouldn't apply in all cases or even the majority of cases, that disclosure of the employment could lead to other sensitive information outside of the good cause showing for the materiality. [¶] Therefore, I'm going to sustain the City Attorney's objection to Request 10...." This petition followed.1 We issued an order to show cause and calendared the case for argument.

The issue of law thus presented is whether a properly framed Pitchess motion, which results in a finding of materiality sufficient to support good cause to suspend the privilege, requires a respondent to produce for the trial court's examination all potentially relevant information regarding an officer's employment history, including information pertaining to other law enforcement employment within the five-year period provided by statute.

Standard of Review

The Pitchess procedure applies in both criminal and civil cases (Rosales v. City of Los Angeles (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 419, 427, 98 Cal.Rptr.2d 144 ["... the whole purpose behind the Penal and Evidence Code provisions is to provide disclosure in a civil or criminal proceedings where the moving party show the information sought is material to the subject matter involved in the pending litigation.].) And the function of appellate review is substantially the same in civil and criminal appeals (6 Witkin & Epstein, Cal.Criminal Law (3d. ed. 2000) Criminal Appeals § 140(1), p. 387; see Crocker National Bank v. City and County of San Francisco (1989) 49 Cal.3d 881, 888, 264 Cal.Rptr. 139, 782 P.2d 278).2 In either type of case, the interpretation of a legal principle or statute is a question of law which we review de novo (People v. Saephanh (2000) 80 Cal.App.4th 451, 457, 94 Cal.Rptr.2d 910).

While our dissenting colleague correctly observes that rulings on Pitchess motions are ordinarily reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard, we cannot agree that the best interpretation of the record is that the trial court properly exercised its discretion. We conclude that the trial court ruled as a matter of law, not only because that is the most reasonable interpretation of the limited record, but also because the trial court expressly relied on a recent case when it framed its ruling. The OPD itself appears to concede that the court ruled as a matter of law and contends that: "records of the officers' prior employment are not discoverable under Cal. Evidence Code § 1043."

The trial court's ruling is unambiguous in its conclusion that the facts offered were sufficient to establish the required material connection between the charged offense and the information sought pertaining to current employment. The court also concluded that the same facts were insufficient to permit examination of even the bare fact that the officers might have been in their current jobs less than five years and previously employed elsewhere as police officers. Therefore the trial court must have required a different showing of materiality as to prior police employment than the showing that the court had already found sufficient to require disclosure of information regarding current employment. The decision to apply a different standard of proof of materiality was necessarily a legal determination.

We are also persuaded that the court believed that its finding of materiality as to prior employment did not depend upon the relationship between the factual scenario of the charged offense and the defense offered by the petitioner. We can infer this from the court's comment that materiality could be impinged by the policies of the prior employing agency. The court said that its examination of the " factual scenario is sort of made in the context of the employment within a local agency under the strictures, personnel policies and so forth of the local agency." This suggests that the trial court thought that the factual scenario presented by the motion with reference to current employment could not be applied to information in the records of the current job that merely indicated prior police employment. Thus, even if the ruling was not intended to be made as a matter of law, the trial court did not apply the law to the facts presented. This constituted a failure to exercise the trial court's discretion. "[A] ruling otherwise within the trial court's power will nonetheless be set aside where it appears from the record that in issuing the ruling the court failed to exercise the discretion vested in it by law. [Citations.]" (People v. Penoli (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 298, 302, 53 Cal.Rptr.2d 825.) "Failure to exercise a discretion conferred and compelled by law constitutes a denial of a fair hearing and a deprivation of fundamental procedural rights, and thus requires reversal. [Citations.]" (Id. at p. 306, 53 Cal. Rptr.2d 825; People v. Downey (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 899, 912, 98 Cal.Rptr.2d 627.)

Finally, even if the ruling was not made as a matter of law and the trial court attempted to exercise its discretion, that discretion was abused. As we discuss below, the threshold for discovery embodied in section 1043 has been characterized by our Supreme Court as "relatively low." (City of Santa Cruz v. Municipal Court (1989) 49 Cal.3d 74, 83-86, 260 Cal.Rptr. 520, 776 P.2d 222 (Santa Cruz)). All the law requires to show good cause to permit such discovery is the "materiality" of the information to the subject matter of the pending litigation and a reasonable belief that the governmental agency has the "type" of information requested. This court found materiality but refused to allow disclosure of any facts that might have allowed further inquiry into prior police work. The trial court cut off such discovery even though the mere fact of the existence of prior police employment is neutral on the face of the record, and even though the OPD has never denied that it has the type of information sought.

The trial court thus created a Catch 223 for the petitioner: he cannot learn about any prior police employment until he can present specific facts...

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