A deputy sheriffs wife, who alleged in divorce proceedings that she was the victim of domestic violence, is entitled to an in camera review of her estranged husbands personnel records, the Third District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
The panel granted a writ of mandate sought by Elena C. Slayton pertaining to a Pitchess motion she brought in marital dissolution proceedings against former Sutter County Sheriffs Deputy Michael Slayton. At trial, Elena Slayton claimed she was a victim of domestic violence during the marriage, which lasted from 1992 to 2005, when the couple separated.
In her August 2006 motion, Slayton sought discovery of Michael Slayton's complete personnel file from the Sutter County Sheriffs Department, including information about his compensation, disciplinary history, complaints made against him, the department's investigation of those complaints, and statements made about him by department personnel.
In support of her motion, she alleged the former deputy was arrested for stalking her after a July 2005 order was entered barring communications with her for purposes other than peaceful contact involving the exchange of their three children for visitation. Additionally, her attorney asserted in a declaration that as of June 2005, before his ultimate termination from the sheriff's department, Michael Slayton said he was on administrative leave due to third-party allegations about his conduct toward various women in the community.
Finding the former deputy's privacy rights trumped Elena Slayton's need for information, the trial judge concluded she made an insufficient showing to permit access to his personnel files, except as to his vacation, sick and retirement records. In her petition for writ of mandate, Slayton argued that because she was seeking her estranged husband's records in the context of divorce proceedings, she did not actually have to follow the Pitchess procedure to access his personnel files.
The Court of Appeal agreed with her only with respect to salary and benefits records, which the trial court had already ordered disclosed. As far as information not directly related to the former officer's compensation, the justices ruled, Pitchess procedural requirements applied to determine whether disclosure was warranted.
Under the state Supreme Court case of Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531, trial judges can order that officials produce police personnel records in camera upon a showing of good cause by a moving party. In deciding whether good cause exists, the court conducts a hearing for the purpose of balancing the moving partyâs rights against the officer's interest in maintaining privacy in his or her records. The judge then must review the files to determine whether the information is relevant to the case and must therefore be disclosed to the moving party's attorneys.
The Court of Appeal said Elena Slayton made an adequate showing that the personnel records were potentially relevant to her divorce case, because they supported her claim of domestic violence. Writing for the court, Justice Rick Sims explained: âConsidering petitioner's allegations, Michael's conduct, and the fact that other women, in particular, may have filed complaints against him, there is reason to believe his personnel records could include evidence of violence or brutality that could bolster petitioner's claims of domestic violence or otherwise reflect on his fitness as a parent. Such evidence would be relevant to determine the appropriate custody arrangement for his and petitioner's children.
Read the case at Slayton v. Superior Court.