Bill Of Rights Limitations Statute Begins Running Before Officer Is Identified

Section 3004(d)(1) of California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights, which applies to law enforcement and fire protection personnel, establishes a one-year limitation on investigations of officer misconduct. Within a one-year period, a public agency must complete its investigation and notify the public safety officer that discipline may be taken. The one-year period begins to run upon the discovery by a person authorized to initiate an investigation of an allegation of misconduct.

But does the one-year period begin to run if the allegation of misconduct does not identify the officer? In a case involving LAPD officer Jason Pedro, the California Court of Appeals answered the question “yes.”

Pedro’s case began on November 9, 2009, when an anti-abortion advocate (O’Brien) called to complain than an officer was conducting personal business at a medical clinic while on duty. Sergeant Rodney Peacock drove to the clinic, encountered Pedro in the area, and the two engaged in a casual conversation. Peacock then asked Pedro whether the person he had dropped off was a victim. According to Pedro, he did not directly respond to the query because he thought it was just small talk. But Peacock wrote in his report that Pedro stated that he was “working the Gang Unit in Detectives and was conducting a follow up with a victim.” Peacock informed the watch commander, and the watch commander called O’Brien to inform him of their findings.

Pedro drove the same young woman to the medical clinic on November 30, 2009, and again encountered O’Brien. On December 1, 2009, O’Brien filed a complaint with the Department that an officer driving an unmarked police car was conducting personal business on the job on November 9 and 30, 2009, and stated the license number of the car. The letter also stated that on the latter occasion the driver twice stated to O’Brien, “Get the f___ away from the car.”

The Department served a formal complaint on Pedro more than a year later, charging him with four counts of misconduct. The complaint alleged Pedro twice improperly used a city vehicle to transport a young female acquaintance to a medical clinic while on duty, that he made a discourteous statement to O’Brien, and that he misled a Department supervisor who encountered him near the clinic on November 9, 2009. The City viewed the last charge as the most serious.

When the City imposed a 22-day suspension on Pedro, he challenged the discipline in court. At the heart of Pedro’s lawsuit was that the charges against him were barred by the one-year statute of limitations in the Bill of Rights.

The Court held that “ignorance of the identity of the accused officer does not delay the commencement of the limitations period. A limitations period begins to run when the cause of action accrues. The general rule is that the plaintiff’s ignorance of the identity of a wrongdoer does not delay the accrual of a cause of action. This is because the identity of the wrongdoer is not an element of the cause of action. This rule also is based on the assumption that the applicable limitations period normally affords sufficient time for a plaintiff who is aware of the injury to identify all of the wrongdoers.

“The Bill of Rights does not state or suggest that the defendant’s identity must be known or suspected for the limitations period to commence. The statute contemplates an investigation taking place for up to one year after the discovery of the alleged misconduct before an officer is notified that discipline may be imposed. We conclude that the general rule that the plaintiff’s ignorance of the identity of the wrongdoer does not delay the accrual of the cause of action applies and that the limitations period began to run when a person authorized to initiate an investigation first became aware of an allegation of misconduct. That occurred no later than December 16, 2009, when O’Brien’s allegations of misconduct were assigned to a lieutenant in Hollenbeck Area.”

The last charge against Pedro – that he misled Peacock – stood on a slightly different footing in that the Department did not conclude that Pedro had been misleading until the end of its investigation, which would have been within the one-year statute of limitations. However, the Court struck down that charge against Pedro as well.

The Court reasoned that “the evidence shows that on November 9, 2009, Peacock could have inquired at the clinic and could have asked his watch commander whether the clinic was a facility where the police took crime victims for treatment, and would have been told that the answer was no. He could have asked Pedro and others further questions to ascertain whether Pedro was conducting official business at the time, but instead relied on his brief conversation with Pedro and failed to learn the truth. Pedro testified at the Board of Rights hearing that if Peacock had informed him that Peacock had been sent to investigate a complaint he would have told Peacock the truth as to why he was there.

“We conclude that in the exercise of reasonable diligence Peacock should have discovered on November 9, 2009, that Pedro’s alleged statement was false. The statute of limitations thus began running on that date.”

Pedro v. City of Los Angeles, 176 Cal.Rptr.3d 777 (Cal. App. 2014).