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Name: People v. Superior Court (Johnson)
Case #: S221296
Court: CA Supreme Court
District CalSup
Opinion Date: 07/06/2015

When the police inform the prosecution that a police officer’s personnel file may contain Brady material, the prosecution cannot inspect that file without following the Pitchess procedures. Johnson was charged with domestic violence offenses. Prior to trial, the prosecutor was informed by the police department that the investigating officers had material in their personnel files that may be subject to disclosure under Brady. The prosecutor filed a motion requesting that the trial court review the officers’ personnel files in camera for Brady material and disclose any Brady material to the prosecution and defense. Instead, the trial court ordered the police department to give the district attorney access to the personnel files of the officers so the prosecution could comply with its Brady mandate. The prosecution and police department filed separate petitions for writ of mandate challenging the order. The Court of Appeal held that, to satisfy its constitutional duty, the prosecution should review the personnel records itself before involving the court. If the records contain Brady material then the prosecution must file a Pitchess motion before disclosing that information to the defense. The Supreme Court granted review. Held: Reversed and remanded. Prosecutors, like defendants, cannot inspect a police officer’s personnel file without following the Pitchess procedures. (See Evid. Code, §§ 1043, 1045; see also Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531.) Penal Code section 832.7, subdivision (a) states that police officer personnel records are “confidential” and permits disclosure of those records only via use of the Pitchess procedures. Although there is an exception for “investigations or proceedings concerning the conduct of peace officers or custodial officers” conducted by “a district attorney’s office,” checking for Brady material is not an investigation under the statute. “A police officer does not become the target of an investigation merely by being a witness in a criminal case.”

When the prosecution is informed that a police officer’s personnel file may contain Brady material, it satisfies its Brady obligation by providing this information to the defense; it does not have an obligation to seek Pitchess discovery. If the prosecutor knows that a police officer’s personnel file may contain information subject to disclosure under Brady, it must inform the defense of that fact. (See Brady v. Maryland (1963) 373 U.S. 83.) However, the prosecutor is not obligated to file a Pitchess motion to conduct the defendant’s investigation for him. “Because a defendant may seek potential exculpatory information in those personnel records just as well as the prosecution, the prosecution fulfills its Brady obligation if it shares with the defendant any information it has regarding whether the personnel records contain Brady material, and then lets the defense decide for itself whether to file a Pitchess motion.” There are several advantages to having the defendant use the Pitchess procedures to acquire exculpatory material in confidential personnel records, including that the defense is in a better position to know if an officer’s credibility will be an issue in a case and to make a request for the information. In these circumstances, the defense would satisfy the showing necessary under the Pitchess procedures by informing the trial court that the police department notified the prosecution that officers’ personnel records might contain Brady material, in addition to providing some explanation of how the officers’ credibility might be relevant to the case.