Cal. Supremes to Review Confidentiality of Police Personnel Files

By William Peacock, Esq. on October 30, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A police officer's personnel file could be a gold mine for a defendant -- past misconduct, especially the really juicy stuff like beating a defendant or falsifying a police report, could destroy an officer's credibility and sway an otherwise teetering jury.

But who screens those police files to determine whether they should be turned over? The California Supreme Court unanimously voted to take up the issue in an appeal of an intermediate court's ruling that prosecutors, not police officers, should screen the files, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

Who Polices the Police? The Police. Or the Prosecutors.

The screening, in San Francisco, is done by a police department committee overseen by the police chief. If any possible Brady information is found in the file, the committee forwards the files to the prosecution, which then asks the court to review the files in a closed-door hearing to determine what is passed over to the defendant. The reason for the intricate process, of course, is the confidentiality of the personnel files, codified in California's Penal Code at Section 832.7(a).

Many other counties across California have similar policies, reports the Chronicle. Appellate courts have also previously upheld similar processes and barred prosecutors from accessing the files due to confidentiality concerns.

A Wife Beater and a (Possibly) Crooked Cop

Daryl Lee Johnson was charged in 2012 with hitting a girl in the head. A police department panel reviewed the officers' records, then turned them over to prosecutors, who said that the information in the files could help Johnson's defense.

That's the standard process, one that appellate courts have approved. However, the First District Court of Appeal, in a 3-0 ruling, held that the police and district attorney are a "single prosecution team," which means prosecutors can (and should) examine the files without violating confidentiality.

"As the California Supreme Court emphasized in Brown, 'the Supreme Court has unambiguously assigned the duty to disclose solely and exclusively to the prosecution; those assisting the government's case are no more than its agents,'" the court noted.

The importance of the case is obvious: The status quo leaves police officers in charge of determining what material is Brady-worthy. Prosecutors, arguably, are far more equipped to make such a determination, though one does wonder if things shouldn't be taken one step further and handed over to a judge or neutral magistrate -- if we're not going to trust police officers to police themselves, are we going to trust prosecutors to tank their own cases?

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