Before filing a lawsuit for violations of California law, a person injured by law-enforcement officers or jail correctional officers must mail or “present” a written “government claim” to the public entities (cities, counties, transit authority, school district, etc.) that employ them. The written claim must include a general description of the injury, damage, or loss incurred, with as much information as the injured person (claimant) can provide. The government claim’s purpose is “to provide the public entity sufficient information to enable it to adequately investigate claims and to settle them, if appropriate, without the expense of litigation.” A government claim does not need to contain detail and specificity as a lawsuit would; it just has to “fairly describe” what the entity and its officers allegedly did wrong.
For example, if a person claims that officers from the Oakland Police Department and deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office violated her rights by using excessive force causing physical injury, then within 6 months of the incident, she must present government claims to both the City of Oakland and the County of Alameda. If in jail when the incident occurs, the person must present a government claim within six months of release from custody.
Presenting the government claim within the 6-month limit is more than a bureaucratic hurdle: it is essential to preserving claims based on violations of California law in a subsequent lawsuit in federal (or state) court. Failure to present the government claim within 6 months may operate as a permanent bar for an injured person to ever file suit for violations of California law. While there are ways to seek leave to present a late claim, they only apply in limited circumstances.
Generally, once a police-misconduct victim has “presented” (mailed) the claim, then the public entity must act within 45 days. The public entity may then choose to do one of the following, under government code section 912.6(a):
Public entities may take a month or more to investigate a government claim. As a practical matter, public entities often reject government claims, or do nothing, which amounts to a rejection “by operation of law.”
Generally the public entity will send the claimant written notice, “a section 913 notice,” of its action or inaction on the rejected claim. The section 913 notice’s mailing date starts a 6-month statute of limitations to bring a lawsuit.