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CA Supreme Court To Determine Whether Hearing Officers Have Authority to Rule on Pitchess Motions in Administrative Hearings

Client Alert

The California Supreme Court will consider whether a hearing officer in an administrative appeal of the dismissal of a correctional officer employed by a county sheriff’s department has the authority to grant a Pitchess motion.

In Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz, the Court of Appeal held that a hearing officer in an administrative appeal of the dismissal of a correctional officer has the authority to grant a motion for discovery of a peace officer’s personnel records under Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531.  One of the fundamental purposes underlying the statutory Pitchess motion procedure is to protect the affected officer’s right of privacy in his or her personnel records.

In that case, Officer Drinkwater was terminated from her employment from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (Department) for falsifying her time records. Drinkwater appealed her termination pursuant to the terms of the memorandum of understanding between the County of Riverside and the Riverside Sheriff’s Association (Association), which provides for an appeal hearing before a mutually agreeable hearing officer, Jan Stiglitz.

Officer Drinkwater submitted a motion for discovery of disciplinary records of other unidentified Department personnel who had been investigated or disciplined for similar conduct. Stiglitz ruled that Drinkwater was entitled to these records and ordered the Department to produce them.

The Department filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandate seeking to compel Stiglitz to vacate his decision because Drinkwater did not show good cause existed entitling her access to the personnel records.  The trial court granted the Department’s writ petition and ruled that only a judicial officer can rule on a Pitchess motion and ordered Stiglitz to deny Drinkwater’s motion for discovery of other personnel’s disciplinary records.  The parties appealed and the Court of Appeal held that an administrative hearing officer may rule on a Pitchess motion where Pitchess discovery is relevant.  The court reversed the trial court’s granting of the writ petition.

Accordingly, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling, the operative case law remains Brown v. Valverde (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 1531 where the Court of Appeal concluded that only judicial officers/judges may rule on Pitchess motion and not hearing officers in administrative proceedings.  Therefore, while Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz is on appeal, Pitchess motions may not be considered and ruled on by hearing officers in appeal proceedings by peace officers.

Please note this is a summary only and not legal advice.  We recommend that you consult with legal counsel to determine how this legal development may apply to your specific facts and circumstances.  If you have any question regarding this matter, please contact attorneys Colin Tanner, Glen Tucker, or Mily Huntley.