Exception In Statute Of Limitations In Bill Of Rights Applies Even To Officers Who Are Not Criminally Charged

Matthias Huelsse was employed by Santa Clara County as a correctional officer. On August 8, 2005, Huelsse and another correctional officer, Officer Aguiniga, were involved in a physical altercation with an inmate in the main jail intake booking area. Huelsse witnessed the use of force by Officer Aguiniga and did not intervene. On the same day, the inmate made a complaint against Officers Aguiniga and Huelsse concerning this incident.

After a preliminary investigation which revealed various discrepancies between the reports written by the officers and what was seen in a review of the jail security video, a criminal investigation was initiated on August 18, 2005. Both Huelsse and Officer Aguiniga were interviewed by the criminal investigators on September 7, 2005. Huelsse initially insisted on the version of events contained in the written report he had submitted. However, eventually he admitted during this interview that the report did not accurately reflect what had happened on August 8, 2005.

The criminal investigation culminated in a criminal complaint being issued as to Officer Aguiniga only, on November 30, 2005, and he was arrested the following day on December 1, 2005. After initially pleading not guilty, Officer Aguiniga entered a plea of no contest on April 10, 2006, to an assault charge.

Under Section 3304(d) of California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, no disciplinary action may be imposed “if the investigation of the allegation is not completed within one year of the public agency’s discovery by a person authorized to initiate an investigation of the allegation of an act, omission, or other misconduct.” The Bill of Rights has an exception, though, that tolls the statute of limitations (i.e., temporarily stops it from running) “if the act, omission, or other allegation of misconduct is also the subject of a criminal investigation or criminal prosecution.” The County eventually terminated Huelsse for dishonesty. Huelsse sued, claiming the County’s discipline was untimely under the Bill of Rights.

The question before the California Court of Appeals was whether the one-year statute of limitations continued to be tolled during the prosecution of Officer Aguiniga, after a prosecutor had determined there was no basis to prosecute Huelsse. In other words, does a criminal investigation into an officer other than the one who is disciplined toll the statute of limitations?

The Court agreed with the County that so long as the disciplined officer was involved in the same underlying event as the officer being prosecuted, the statute of limitations should be tolled. The Court’s decision turned on the specific language in the Bill of Rights:
“The Bill of Rights does not refer to misconduct alleged against a particular officer. Rather, it provides for tolling ‘if the act, omission, or the allegation of misconduct is also the subject of a criminal investigation or criminal prosecution.’ The language is not ambiguous. The Legislature cannot be presumed to have intended to include a requirement that the officer who is subject to disciplinary proceedings also be a named defendant in criminal proceedings. This conclusion is bolstered by the fact that the Legislature did include such a requirement in another tolling provision in the Bill of Rights. That subdivision provides for tolling of the limitations period during civil litigation where the public safety officer is named as a defendant. The Legislature could have included similar limiting language in the section of the Bill of Rights dealing with criminal investigations, but it did not. Clearly it intended to treat criminal prosecution and civil litigation differently for purposes of tolling disciplinary proceedings.”

Huelsse v. County Of Santa Clara, 2010 WL 1838616 (Cal. App. 6 Dist. 2010).

This article appears in the August 2010 issue