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California Supreme Court Holds Arbitrators Have Authority to Rule on Pitchess Motions during Administrative Appeals

Expanding yet again the scope of access to confidential peace officer personnel records, the California Supreme Court has ruled that arbitrators in administrative appeals from disciplinary action have the authority to review peace officer records in response to a Pitchess motion. The court held on December 1, 2014, in Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz, et al.(2014) 60 Cal.4th 624, that arbitrators presiding over disciplinary appeals under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act may rule on Pitchess motions made by either party without involving the superior court.

A Pitchess motion is a motion made under provisions of the California Evidence Code that allow information from confidential peace officer personnel records to be disclosed to the moving party after in camera (in chambers) review by a court. The moving party must show good cause to believe there is relevant information in the records before a court may order a law enforcement agency to produce those records for the in camera review. The court has the authority to review the records and determine what information, if any, to release to the party requesting the records.

Sheriff’s Department Refused to Provide Peace Officer Records

In the Stiglitz case, a county correctional officer who was fired for timecard fraud sought the personnel records of 11 other officers she believed had committed the same misconduct but had not been disciplined. The arbitrator granted her Pitchess motion seeking those records; however, the Sheriff’s Department refused to comply with the arbitrator’s order to provide the records for in camera review because the arbitrator was not a judicial officer. Appeals by both sides eventually brought the case to the Supreme Court.

Relying on language in the Evidence Code providing for a Pitchess motion to be filed “with the appropriate court or administrative body”, the Court held arbitrators have the same authority as superior court judges to compel production of the records, review those records, and order disclosure to one of the parties. The Court reasoned that even though the applicable statutes do not expressly give arbitrators such authority, it would be meaningless to allow an arbitrator to rule on a party’s request for peace officer records without also giving the arbitrator authority to review the records and determine their relevance in the proceeding.

In my experience as a law enforcement labor advocate, many arbitrators are not familiar with Pitchess because they are not routinely asked to review the personnel records of peace officers other than the subject employee. Pitchess motions in arbitration proceedings are rare but useful. A Pitchess motion may obtain, particularly for the appellant, records affecting witness credibility or, as in this case, records supporting a disparate treatment defense. By broadening the scope of arbitrators’ authority in administrative appeals under POBRA, the Court has made it more likely such motions will be made, if not more often granted.

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