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California: Trial Court Cannot Abdicate its Responsibility to Examine Peace Officer Personnel Records

California: Trial Court Cannot Abdicate its Responsibility to Examine Peace Officer Personnel Records


by Michael Brodheim


On May 6, 2013, the California Court of Appeal held that a trial court conducting an in camera review of peace officer personnel records must examine the records itself, and cannot abdicate that responsibility in favor of an assessment by the custodian of the records with respect to whether they contain discoverable information.

In November 2007, Costa Mesa police officers, along with state parole agents, traveled to Carlsbad in unmarked vehicles to arrest Ronald Jay Sisson, also known as Brian Lee Olson – a parolee and suspected gang member. In the incident that ensued, the officers fired 27 rounds into Sisson’s vehicle after he rammed police cars and struck an officer when attempting to drive away. The gunfire killed Esther Elizabeth Evans, a passenger in Sisson’s front seat, who was shot in the head.

Sisson was subsequently charged with one count of provocative act murder in connection with Evans’ death plus three counts of assaulting a peace officer with a deadly weapon. He disputed the officers’ version of events and filed two discovery motions under Pitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (Cal. 1974), seeking complaints of dishonesty, false reporting and excessive force in the officers’ and parole agents’ personnel files. He alleged the officers and agents had lied and falsified their statements concerning the incident.

Instead of examining the files itself, the trial court placed the custodian of the records under oath and then asked general questions about the contents of the records that had been produced. Only when the custodian indicated that, in its assessment, a record included discoverable information did the trial court actually examine the record. Incredibly, the trial court deferred to the custodian’s opinion that the records of an internal affairs review of the shooting incident at issue contained no discoverable information.

The Court of Appeal reversed, noting that under California Supreme Court precedent, “the locus of decision making is to be the trial court, not the prosecution or the custodian of records.” Additionally, “while the trial court made an effort to inquire into what types of documents the custodians opted not to produce, the effort fell short of requiring the custodians to establish on the record what documents or category of documents were included in the officers’ complete personnel files and, where applicable, to explain their decisions to withhold certain documents.”

The appellate court concluded that Sisson had “showed good cause for discovery of complaints of dishonesty or false reporting as to some officers, but did not show good cause for discovery of complaints of excessive force as to any officers.” Accordingly, his petition for review was granted in part and denied in part. See: Sisson v. Supreme Court, 216 Cal. App. 4th 24 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. 2013).

In September 2013, Sisson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter and two counts of assault on peace officers using a deadly weapon (his vehicle). He was sentenced to 13 years and 8 months in prison pursuant to a plea agreement.

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Related legal case

Sisson v. Supreme Court