skip to Main Content
Name: Sisson v. Superior Court
Case #: D063022
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 05/06/2013

When conducting an in camera Pitchess review, a trial court must examine the records itself; it may not rely on the custodian’s assessment of the discoverability of information contained in the records. Police officers attempted to arrest appellant for absconding from parole supervision. He tried to flee in his car, striking one of the officers. Defendant was charged with provocative act murder and assaulting police officers after police opened fire in response to his flight, killing a passenger in the car. Defendant filed two motions under Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531, seeking information regarding complaints against a number of officers for excessive force and dishonesty. The court allowed access to some information as to several of the officers; defendant sought review. Held: Writ granted in part; remanded for further hearing. Here, the trial court conducted several in camera hearings at which it placed the custodian of records under oath and asked questions regarding the content of the records. The court did not review the records unless the custodian opined the record contained discoverable material. This was error. In ruling on a Pitchess motion, the court should make a record of the files it reviewed to permit appellate review, which did not occur here, resulting in an inadequate record of the documents produced. A trial court may not abdicate its responsibility to personally review the files and determine whether there is discoverable material. Matter remanded for adequate Pitchess review.

Defendant showed good cause for the trial court to conduct an in camera review of the officer’s personnel records for information related to dishonesty. A defendant seeking police personnel records must show good cause, which requires a nexus between the information and his proposed defense, including impeaching the officer’s version of events. Defendant met this threshold as to information regarding reports related to dishonesty as to four of the officers because his knowledge whether the men who approached his car were police could impact whether he intentionally assaulted/provoked them. However, there was no logical link between past complaints of use of excessive force and the proposed defense–the focus of the provocative act murder doctrine is on the defendant’s conduct, not the state of mind of the person who committed the homicide. Further, there was no link between any such complaints and any defense to the assault charges under the circumstances of this case.