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California Appellate Court Reversed Conviction Based on Trial Court’s Failure to Review Officers’ Personnel Files


Witness credibility is essential in any California criminal case. If a witness is found not to be credible, their testimony comes into question, which can create doubt in the minds of the jurors. Thus, in cases involving the testimony of a police officer, defendants can attack an officer’s credibility just like any other witness.

One way a defendant can attack the credibility of a police officer is by showing the jury that the officer has been engaged in past misconduct. Under California case law, when a defendant can show good cause, he “is entitled to discovery of relevant documents or information contained within the confidential personnel records of peace officers accused of misconduct against the defendant.” Before ordering that any evidence of misconduct be provided to the defense, the trial must review the material at issue to determine its potential relevance. This is called a Pitchess motion hearing, named after the case that first announced the rule. A recent case illustrates how a Pitchess motion should be conducted, and the consequences if the proper procedures are not followed.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant dropped a can of spray paint as police officers approached him. Evidently, when police asked, the defendant admitted to having recently tagged something. The officers located fresh graffiti nearby and arrested the defendant.

The defendant filed a Pitchess motion, requesting that the court review the arresting officers’ personnel files for potential misconduct. The court granted the defendant’s motion and called the custodian of records for the internal affairs department was called as a witness. The custodian prepared a document indicating each finding of misconduct for each of the four officers involved in the case. The court questioned the custodian about each of the officers’ records, and ultimately determined that no evidence was required to be passed to the defense.

The defendant argued a motion to suppress, which was denied, and then entered a guilty plea. However, the defendant then appealed both the denial of his motion as well as the outcome of the Pitchess motion.

The court affirmed the denial of the defendant’s motion to suppress, but held that the court did not follow the appropriate procedure in conducting the Pitchess hearing. The court reviewed the transcripts from the hearing, and found that there was no indication that the court actually reviewed any of the officers’ files. Instead, it appeared that the court asked the custodian if any of the evidence was discoverable by the defense.

The court explained that it is the court’s job, not the custodian’s, to determine whether any of the information contained in the officers’ personnel files was discoverable. Because the court did not review the files, the proper procedures were not filed, and the appellate court reversed the defendant’s conviction, ordering a new trial.

Have You Been Arrested for a California Crime?

While the above case involves a relatively minor offense, the concept illustrated by the case applies to all California criminal cases involving the testimony of a police officer. Attorney John W. Noonan is a dedicated California criminal defense attorney with over 55 years of experience representing those charged with serious crimes. At the Law Offices of John W. Noonan, we take every case seriously, from first-time misdemeanor offenses to allegations of California sexual assault or murder. To learn more about how Attorney Noonan can help you defend your freedom against the charges you are facing, call (925) 886-4281 to schedule a free consultation today.