Understanding Johnson Motions vs. Pitchess Motions

January 19, 2024

In criminal defense, motions like Johnson and Pitchess are critical tools for attorneys seeking to ensure a fair trial for their clients. Both motions are used to scrutinize the credibility and history of police officers involved in a case, but they differ in their prerequisites and application. This article aims to demystify the difference between a Johnson Motion and a Pitchess Motion, highlighting their significance in the criminal justice system.

What is a Pitchess Motion?


A Pitchess motion, named after the California Supreme Court case Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974), is a request made by the defense to access a police officer’s personnel file. The defense must allege specific instances of officer misconduct relevant to the case at hand. This motion is commonly used in situations where the defense suspects that an officer’s past behavior could impact the credibility or the legitimacy of their actions in the current case.

Key Elements of a Pitchess Motion


  1. Allegation of Misconduct: The defense must allege that the officer engaged in misconduct, such as excessive use of force, dishonesty, racial profiling, or other relevant misconduct.
  2. Relevance to the Case: The alleged misconduct must be directly relevant to the case being tried.
  3. Court Review: If the motion is granted, the court conducts an in-camera (private) review of the officer’s personnel file to determine if there is relevant information that should be disclosed to the defense.

What is a Johnson Motion?


A Johnson Motion, while similar to a Pitchess Motion, does not require the defense to allege misconduct on the part of the involved officers. Named after the case People v. Johnson, this type of motion comes into play when the prosecution has already disclosed that an officer involved in the case may have a history of misconduct in their personnel file.

Key Elements of a Johnson Motion


  1. Notification from Prosecution: The motion is used when the prosecutor has sent a letter to the defense counsel indicating that an officer in the case might have relevant misconduct in their personnel file.
  2. Importance of the Officer’s Role: The defense must demonstrate that the officer in question played a significant role in the case.
  3. Court Review: As with a Pitchess Motion, the court will conduct an in-camera review of the officer’s personnel file to determine if there is pertinent information to disclose to the defense.

Comparing Johnson and Pitchess Motions


  1. Requirement of Alleging Misconduct: The primary difference between the two is the need to allege misconduct. A Pitchess Motion requires specific allegations of misconduct, whereas a Johnson Motion is used when the prosecution has already acknowledged the potential for misconduct.

  2. Ease of Getting Granted: Generally, it is easier to get a Johnson Motion granted because it does not require the defense to make an initial showing of officer misconduct.

  3. Application in Cases: Both motions are applied to explore the credibility of police officers involved in a case and can significantly impact the defense strategy.

Importance in Criminal Defense


Johnson and Pitchess motions are powerful tools in criminal defense for several reasons:

  • Ensuring Fair Trials: They help uncover potentially exculpatory evidence related to an officer’s credibility.
  • Questioning Credibility: Information gleaned from these motions can be crucial in challenging the testimony of police officers.
  • Balancing the Scales: They provide a mechanism for the defense to counteract the inherent power imbalance between prosecution and defense, especially in cases hinging on police testimony.

Contact Us for Help


Understanding the nuances between Johnson and Pitchess Motions is crucial for defense attorneys striving to protect their clients’ rights. Both motions serve as vital checks on police credibility and can be instrumental in securing a fair trial. For defendants, having an attorney who is adept at utilizing these motions can be a key factor in the outcome of their case. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the strategic use of Johnson and Pitchess motions remains a cornerstone of effective criminal defense.

Contact an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney today.

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