Pitchess v. Superior Court was an important California Supreme Court case. The case established that defendants can request police records to show a history of aggression or rule breaking.
It’s common for DUI defendants—and other types of criminal defendants—to claim that they were threatened, beaten, racially profiled, or otherwise mistreated by police. If true, these claims can lead to a major turnaround, and can even get the charges against the defendant dropped. But these claims are hard to prove. One of the best ways to prove them is to pull police documents and show that the officer(s) in question have a long history of improper behavior.
Law enforcement agencies, of course, don’t want to turn over these records, but sometimes they have no choice. This is because of an important California Supreme Court decision known as Pitchess v. Superior Court. Thanks to this decision, defendants in California have a right to get private police records in some cases.
What was the Pitchess v. Superior Court case all about?
In the 1970s, a California man named César Echeverría was hospitalized during a confrontation with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Echeverría was so badly beaten that he ended up in the Intensive Care Unit. The four sheriff’s deputies who arrested him, however, claimed that he had assaulted them. None of the deputies was hurt.
When Echeverría was charged for the “assault,” he needed to find a way to prove that the officers had lied. He suspected that if they had lied and used excessive force once, they may have done it before. His attorney requested Sheriff’s Office records of any complaints involving the deputies or any past instances of excessive force.
The Los Angles County Sheriff at the time, Peter J. Pitchess, refused to turn over the documents. This led to a court battle in which Echeverría’s lawyer subpoenaed the documents and Pitchess’ department fought the subpoena at every step.
Eventually the case went to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in 1974 that Echeverría was right—he had a right to the documents. This was a rare 7-0 decision by the state Supreme Court, meaning not a single justice disagreed.
The case is called Pitchess v. Superior Court because it was the Superior Court of Los Angeles that originally ordered the documents released.
How does the Pitchess decision help my DUI case?
If you believe police acted improperly in your DUI arrest or questioning, your lawyer can now file a special kind of request known as a Pitchess Motion. Examples of improper behavior include:
- Racial profiling
- Excessive use of force
- Planting evidence or manipulating evidence
- Coercing a confession
A successful Pitchess motion could give you the evidence you need to get your DUI case dropped.
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