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In a controversial case that pits police officers’ privacy rights against criminal defendants’ interests in getting fair trials, the California Supreme Court on Thursday debated how much of an officer’s personnel file must be turned over when requested by the defense. The justices, sitting in Orange County for the first time, expressed some sympathy for defendants whose cases could be hurt by limits on disclosure. But they seemed reticent to throw open files that could contain sensitive information, such as medical records, that might not be relevant. “Is there anything in the legislative scheme that it was [legislators'] intent that the entire personnel record would have to be turned over?” asked Justice Joyce Kennard. People v. Mooc, case no. S090666, was initiated by Bau Mooc, an inmate on immigration hold in a Santa Ana, Calif., jail who sought information through a so-called Pitchess motion about any previous complaints or disciplinary action against officer Frank Garcia. Mooc made the motion after being convicted of battery in a fight between him and Garcia that Garcia blamed on him, even though two other inmates said Mooc was not at fault. In a ruling last year, an angry Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed Mooc’s battery conviction after demanding, and finally getting three tries later, Garcia’s complete personnel file. The appeal court found information that had not been provided to Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank Fasel that it felt was potentially relevant to Mooc’s defense, and slammed the city for stonewalling. “Public confidence in the criminal justice system,” the court held, “is eroded when its officials deliberately fail to disclose records ordered disclosed.” Whatever decision the high court reaches will have special resonance in Southern California because of the Rampart corruption scandal, in which Los Angeles police officers framed suspects, causing some to be found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. Government lawyers on Thursday told the justices that while criminal defendants have a right to discover information in an officer’s personnel file, neither they nor trial judges have absolute authority to compel the disclosure of entire personnel files. “There may be information [an] officer simply would not like a lot of people to know about,” Deputy Attorney General Marilyn George said Thursday. Aside from that, she added, it’s a blatant violation of the officer’s and his employer’s privacy rights. Denah Yoshiyama, of the Santa Ana city attorney’s office, told the court that government agencies have a right to screen out information as personal as medical records or commendation files, but that courts can seek more specific documents on request to be viewed by a judge in camera. “Law enforcement doesn’t mind disclosing,” she said. “Law enforcement would like to see that statutory mandates are followed. Courts have to balance everything.” Justices Marvin Baxter and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar asked what recourse defendants have if key records are withheld. Can those decisions be reviewed on appeal? Werdegar asked. Under tough questioning by Justice Kennard, Mooc’s lawyer, Jeffrey Wilens, of Mission Viejo’s Lakeshore Law Center, conceded that an officer’s entire personnel file doesn’t need to be disclosed in every case, but said there has to be some accountability about what data agencies supply. In Mooc’s situation, he noted, the Santa Ana city attorney’s office took it upon itself to decide what to release, despite the trial judge’s requests and three demands by the appeal court. “It’s not that some screening can’t be done,” he said, “but it has to be done under the guidance of the court and not under the sole discretion of the city attorney’s office. “Who’s to oversee them,” he added, “and where’s the responsibility?” Justice Kennard took brief issue with Wilens on one point, arguing that his initial trial request was only for any complaints or reprimands against Garcia. But Wilens said he thought Kennard might be “splitting hairs,” and insisted his initial request was for records of not only that type, but also for any other files that might be pertinent. The justices also asked whether the appeal court had overstepped its bounds by demanding records that hadn’t been viewed at trial, and about whether or not the Santa Ana city attorney’s office might have engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by not complying with specific judicial requests. The justices held court in Orange County’s historic old courthouse Thursday to pay homage to the building’s and the Orange County Bar Association’s 100-year anniversary. Now a museum that isn’t used for judicial functions on a regular basis, the courthouse opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1901. Several dignitaries, including former California Supreme Court Justice John Arguelles of Orange County, were on hand for pre-argument ceremonies. Sitting on the Mooc case Thursday with the six current justices was Second District Court of Appeal Justice Mildred Lillie, filling in for the late Stanley Mosk.

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