LAPD Loses Disciplinary Penalty Due To Statute Of Limitations

Ronald Sanchez is a Police Officer III for the Los Angeles Police Department. On September 8, 1998, the Department discovered facts that gave rise to an investigation that Sanchez committed misconduct.

On August 25, 1999, within one year from its discovery of the relevant facts, the Department served Sanchez with a “notice of proposed disciplinary action.” In the notice, a captain indicated he was proposing to the Police Chief that Sanchez be suspended for 20 working days based on six proposed charges. The first count alleged that Sanchez had directed another officer to falsify information on Sanchez’s daily field activities report; the remaining five counts alleged that Sanchez conducted personal business while on duty.

The proposed 20-day suspension was the only punitive action set forth in the August 25, 1999 Notice. With respect to other possible discipline, such as a “demotion/downgrade” and “relief from duty,” the paperwork stated “none.”

On September 8, 1999, exactly one year after the discovery date, then-Chief Bernard Parks rejected the proposed discipline and set the matter for a hearing by a Board of Rights. On October 27, 1999, more than 13 months after the discovery date of September 8, 1999, a captain served a new memorandum on Sanchez requesting that Sanchez be reduced in pay grade from Police Officer III to Police Officer II, and that he be given a 31-day suspension. Eventually, the City made the decision to disciplinarily downgrade Sanchez to Police Officer II.

Sanchez filed a lawsuit against the City, alleging that the imposition of a downgrade was outside of the statute of limitations for disciplinary actions set forth in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act in California. The Act provides no punitive action shall be undertaken for any act, omission, or other allegation of misconduct 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. In the event that the public agency determines the discipline may be taken, it shall complete its investigation and notify the public safety officer of its proposed disciplinary action within that year.”

The California Court of Appeals found that the City did, in fact, violate the time limits in the Bill of Rights. The Department argued that its August 25, 1999 notice to Sanchez proposing a 20-day suspension adequately put him on notice as to the seriousness of the investigation. As the Department argued, “the notification was only a notice of proposed disciplinary action from the captain and not a commitment by the Department to Sanchez that he would never receive a punitive action in excess of the suspension indicated in the notice.”

The Court disagreed, finding that a timely notice of “some punitive action” was inadequate unless the punitive action actually imposed paralleled that in the notice. As put by the Court, the Bill of Rights “requires the Department to notify the officer of the specific disciplinary action that is being proposed, not merely to advise the officer that some action is being contemplated.”

The Court ordered that Sanchez be reinstated to Police Officer III and made whole for lost wages.

Sanchez v. City of Los Angeles, 2006 WL 1452672 (Cal.App. 2006).

This article appears in the July 2006 issue