The “Pitchess motion” is a formal court request used when officers are accused of improper or illegal behavior. It is one of the more common motions used in California DUI cases. As the defendant who is accused of DUI, a Pitchess motion is a very useful tool: it can give you access to a police officer’s personnel records, potentially showing a history of improper behavior in the past. But it can only be used in certain cases.
Why is it called a “Pitchess” motion?
The motion is named for a famous 1974 California Supreme Court case, Pitchess v. Superior Court. The case involved a man who had been brutally beaten by four Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputies, and accused of “assaulting” them (none of the deputies was hurt). The sheriff at the time refused to release the deputies’ records, and the argument went all the way to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme court ruled in favor of releasing the records in an unusual 7-0 decision. Any motion making this kind of request in California is now named after the case.
What kind of impropriety does a Pitchess motion address?
Some law enforcement officers are too eager to “bust” criminals, and may (intentionally or unintentionally) engage in practices that are illegal. These practices can include:
- Racial profiling
- Excessive use of force
- Planting evidence or manipulating evidence
- Coercing a confession
- Lying about information gathered/lying in police reports
If any of these happened in your DUI arrest, or if you think they did, it could allow you to get your case dropped. First, however, you need evidence of the officer’s improper behavior. One of the most useful pieces of evidence is the private personnel records maintained by the police department, sheriff’s office or other law enforcement body. In other words, if this officer has been disciplined before for breaking procedure, that could help you prove that procedure was broken in your case, too.
Of course, law enforcement offices aren’t eager to turn over these records. They will usually refuse the request outright. Filing a Pitchess motion is your way of forcing them to give you the records anyway. The motion is a formal request to the judge to order the records released; if the judge agrees, the agency will give you the documents you need.
How do I file a Pitchess motion?
Pitchess motions are filed long before the trial begins. Filing one involves several steps:
- Your lawyer must decide what specific kinds of records they want to request. This information must be included in the motion.
- Your lawyer gives notice to the law enforcement agency in question (for example, the Los Angeles Police Department). The agency must be informed that the request for records is being made.
- Your lawyer must also include documents that show “good cause” for the request.
Establishing good cause is the most sensitive part of a Pitchess motion. It basically means you have to have a good reason to suspect police misconduct—you aren’t just fishing for anything to use against the officer. Normally, the “good cause” documentation will include an affidavit (sworn statement) that must do two things:
- Describe exactly what misconduct you claim happened, and why. For example, if the officer says you were pulled over for repeatedly swerving, but you know you didn’t swerve, the affidavit will state what happened and any facts you can point to that corroborate your story (such as inconsistencies in the police report).
- Show how the records you’re requesting are relevant relevant to your defense. Using the same example, if it turns out the officer has a history of lying or distorting facts about arrests, that would suggest that he may have been lying about you swerving, and had no grounds to pull you over. Or if the officer turns out to have a history of aggression against people of your race, it could suggest racial profiling.
The point is to directly connect the kinds of records you’re requesting to the current case at hand.
If the judge agrees that you have good cause for the request, he or she will then hold a private meeting (“in camera”) to discuss the request. At this meeting, the judge will decide which specific types of records to order the law enforcement agency to release.
How foes a Pitchess motion help my DUI case?
It depends on what the motion turns up. In some cases, the officer has no history of impropriety, so it doesn’t help defend you at all. In other cases, however, the officer who acted wrongly in your case has a documented history of acting wrongly in the past, too. This means that your allegations will be taken very seriously.
If this happens, the motion could end up leading to several positive outcomes:
- The case is dropped. The prosecution may decide that they no longer have a solid case against you—or they may simply not want to risk taking it to trial. They may immediately drop the DUI case. If you face additional charges besides DUI, they could drop some or all of them.
- Dismissal of charges. If the prosecutor doesn’t drop your case, your lawyer could use a motion to dismiss. This is basically a formal request that the judge throw out the case, or throw out some of the charges against you.
- Suppressing evidence. Even if the case is neither dropped nor dismissed, you could use the officer’s impropriety as grounds to challenge the evidence against you, using a motion to suppress. If evidence is suppressed, it weakens the prosecutor’s case.
If the Pitchess motion works it can substantially help your case, and if it fails, it doesn’t really harm you. This makes it incredibly valuable when you suspect any kind of impropriety. This one motion could end up getting your entire DUI case dropped.
Have you been charged with DUI? We can connect you with an experienced Los Angeles DUI lawyer and get you a FREE consultation. Fill out the form to the right or call (310) 862-0199 and get your free consultation today.