By Mark Gutglueck
The Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department consistently overstepped its authority between 2014 through 2016, having over 700 vehicles towed, with large numbers of those having been lost to their owners based on liens placed against the vehicles by the sole-vendor towing company that took custody of the vehicles, according to the 2016-17 San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury.
The grand jury called for a law enforcement agency with standing to carry out a wider investigation into the scandal than that which it was permitted to do by its charter as the civil grand jury, and recommended that refunds be made to those individuals whose cars were seized permanently or temporarily in those cases where the department’s officers had insufficient legal authority to cite and tow.
In the aftermath of the grand jury report, the school district and its police department refused to identify the tow company, which the Sentinel has learned, is Big Apple Automotive.
According to the grand jury report, “The San Bernardino County Grand Jury received a report of possible issues involving the AVUSD-PD pertaining to disposal of district vehicles. During the course of that inquiry, it was immediately determined that district vehicles were not involved, but rather that, from January 2014 through December 2016, the AVUSD-PD had ordered over 700 vehicles towed from public roadways. The adjoining Hesperia Unified School District Police Department did not tow any vehicles during that same time period. The Snowline Unified School District Police Department in nearby Phelan towed only one abandoned vehicle during the same time frame. The San Bernardino Unified School District Police Department, an agency four times as large as AVUSD-PD, towed 272 vehicles during the same time period while the Fontana Unified School District Police Department, with 64 officers, towed only 169 vehicles. All of the vehicles ordered towed by the AVUSD-PD were towed by a single tow company in Apple Valley. An unknown number of the privately owned vehicles were subsequently lien sold by the tow company for fees and towing charges accrued.”
The grand jury report states, “A legal opinion prepared by the San Bernardino County Counsel’s Office, at the request of the grand jury, found that school police officers are limited duty peace officers whose primary duty is to ensure the safety of school district personnel and pupils, and the security of the real and personal property of the school district. These officers have additional authority in Penal Code Section 830.32 to make arrests when there is an immediate danger to persons or property, or the escape of the perpetrator of that offense. By application, the school police would not have general police powers off school property unless there was an immediate danger to a person or property or to the escape of the perpetrator of that offense. All of the Apple Valley Unified School District police officers that were interviewed by the grand jury believed that Penal Code Section 830.32 permitted them to stop, cite, and tow vehicles anywhere in the state of California. None of the police officers were able to cite any legal opinion from the school district’s legal counsel or the school district’s administration. The grand jury was unable to find any school district actions directing officers to exert that level of authority.”
According to the grand jury report, “The Town of Apple Valley Police Department has primary jurisdiction for all police services within the town limits. The town contracts with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to provide those services. Most law enforcement agencies that have concurrent jurisdiction with another law enforcement agency have a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to delineate responsibilities and coordinate procedures between the agencies. The grand jury requested a copy of the MOU between AVUSD and the Town of Apple Valley Police Department. AVUSD was unable to produce a copy of the MOU that had been signed or approved by either the town or the district.”
A CHP 180 form provides notice to the registered owner or legal owner of a car that has been towed of the owner’s right to a hearing on the legality of the tow. According to the grand jury report, “The forms were never sent to the registered owner and the legal owner as mandated by Section 22852(a) of the California Vehicle Code unless there was a lien holder listed as the legal owner. AVUSD-PD officers interviewed said they sometimes gave a printed sheet to the driver that explained how to pay the administrative vehicle release form fee and retrieve the vehicle from the tow yard; however, an explanation to the driver of the process to request a post-storage hearing was not included.”
According to the grand jury report, “A significant majority of the citations were for non-hazardous moving vehicle code violations such as expired registration, equipment violations, expired driver’s license, no driver’s license in possession or not wearing a seat belt. Several drivers of vehicles ordered towed by the AVUSD-PD were interviewed by the grand jury. One woman reported that she was stopped by AVUSD-PD on October 6, 2016 on Bear Valley Road and Central Avenue in Apple Valley at 11:23 p.m. at night because the license plate light on her vehicle was inoperative. The officer determined the vehicle had an expired license registration and ordered her vehicle towed and issued a citation. The driver did not feel comfortable in the presence of the officer and refused his offer of giving her a ride home. She subsequently walked about a mile to her home. She was unable to pay the fees to retrieve her car and it was ultimately lien sold at auction by the tow company. She was not at or near a school when she was stopped. In another incident, a man was stopped on Christmas Day 2016, at 8:45 p.m. The officer stopped him for an expired registration. The officer learned the man had a suspended driver’s license. The driver told the grand jury that his suspended license was a surprise to him because he had only experienced a difficulty with a late child support payment. The officer cited the man for both violations and had his car towed to a storage facility, even though the driver’s son was in the car with a valid driver’s license and could have driven the vehicle home. While the driver was stopped near a school, it was 8:45 p.m. and school was not in session due to winter break.”
According to the grand jury report, “The registered and legal owners were often deprived of their right to a post-storage hearing. Vehicle Code 22852 (e) states: ‘The agency employing the person who directed the storage shall be responsible for the costs incurred for towing and storage if it is determined in the post-storage hearing that reasonable grounds for the storage are not established.’ The AVUSD-PD administration could only recall one instance when a post storage hearing was requested.”
The grand jury report hinted that the scandal went beyond the school district engaging in a bureaucratic shakedown of unsuspecting motorists for $120 a pop to process paperwork for the release of the vehicles in question to something more sinister involving collusion with the tow company to obtain a far more substantial profit. “The administrative vehicle release form is currently completed by the clerical staff at the AVUSD-PD office upon payment of $120.00 and verification that any registration or licensing deficiencies have been rectified,” the grand jury report states. “Once the vehicle release form is completed and provided to the driver or owner, the vehicle may then be retrieved from the tow company upon payment of towing and storage fees, currently a minimum of $250.00 plus $50.00 per day beyond the first day. The grand jury visited the office of the tow company and examined its storage area to estimate the capacity for storage and retention of towed vehicles. The inspection failed to locate any price schedules posted in the area accessible to the public as required by CA Vehicle Code 22651.07(a)(1)(A). Interviews with drivers who had their vehicle ordered towed by AVUSD-PD also reported that they saw no fee schedules posted and that, in several cases, the tow company required that the fees be paid by cash.”
Once an examination of the questionable towing practices began, the grand jury report indicates, Apple Valley Unified police officers evinced consciousness of guilt.
“In December of 2016, after the grand jury commenced this inquiry, the AVUSD-PD changed its tow methodology to utilize a weekly tow rotation system amongst three local tow companies,” the report states. “It was reported that these two additional tow companies were approved and vetted for utilization and used by the San Bernardino County Sheriff Department. The grand jury independently confirmed that information. This three-tow rotation was done without any advice or guidance from the AVUSD administrative services division that is responsible for all contracts for service within the district. The AVUSD did not execute any contracts, MOUs or written understandings with any of the tow companies.”
The grand jury report continues, “The grand jury requested information from the tow company as to the disposition of all of the 700 plus vehicles ordered towed by AVUSD-PD over the past three years. The tow company was only able to produce disposition information for 217 of the 727 vehicles ordered towed. Sworn testimony by the representative of the tow company was that the information they produced was a complete and accurate representation of their files. The representative could not explain, nor accept, that there was a discrepancy of 510 vehicles unaccounted for in their records. The grand jury will leave to other agencies or organizations any attempt to examine the inability of the tow company to account for 510 vehicles that AVUSD-PD indicated were towed by them.”
Somewhat dryly, the grand jury report states, “The AVUSD-PD sponsors Explorer Post Unit 95. This Explorer Post is open to students who have an interest in law enforcement. The advisors are officers of the AVUSD-PD who volunteer their time to mentor the students. Several past members have advanced to law enforcement careers, including with the AVUSD-PD. The post serves as a crime diversion program for at-risk youths.”
In its findings, the report stated, “The Apple Valley Unified School District relied on California Vehicle Code Section 22850.5(a) to charge a vehicle release fee and to make increases in that fee. The vehicle code section relied upon gives authority to charge this fee to ‘…a city, county, or city and county, or a state agency.’ AVUSD-PD is not a city, county, or city and county or a state agency, and thus has no authority to charge this fee. Based on interviews with several AVUSD-PD personnel and several owners/drivers of vehicles that were towed at the direction of AVUSD-PD, the registered owners and legal owners were not notified of their right to a post-storage hearing to determine the validity of the storage, as mandated by California Vehicle Code Section 22852(a). Through the combined interviews conducted by the Grand Jury of AVUSD personnel, interviews with drivers/owners of vehicles that were towed at the direction of the AVUSD-PD, review of documents provided by AVUSD-PD, and a legal opinion from San Bernardino County Counsel, it was determined that, in many cases, the AVUSD-PD did not have authority to stop, cite, and tow vehicles. Many owners could not pay the tow and storage fees, and their vehicles were subsequently lien sold.
Based on interviews with AVUSD and AVUSD-PD personnel and based on a review of documents submitted by AVUSD, the AVUSD-PD was authorizing the towing of vehicles using only one tow service for a number of years, with no written contract, no signed memorandum of understanding, and without the involvement of the AVUSD administrative services division. Based on interviews with AVUSD-PD personnel, interviews with AVUSD personnel, and a review of California Penal Code section 830.32, Education Code 38000, and case law, the majority of instances where the AVUSD-PD stopped, cited, and authorized the towing of vehicles exceeded the authority of the AVUSD police officers, since most instances did not indicate an immediate threat to persons or property. Based on the examination of citations written by the AVUSD-PD during the years 2014, 2015 and 2016, there is a constant increase in the number of citations written and vehicles being towed, with the vast majority of citations being for non-hazardous vehicle code violations. This activity results in the officers being taken away from their primary duty, which is the protection of school children, school personnel, and school property. The AVUSD has operated without a signed MOU with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. Based on the tow log received by the AVUSD-PD on all cars that department ordered to be towed by the only tow company used during the years 2014, 2015, and 2016, and compared to the cars that the tow company received during 2014, 2015, and 2016, over 500 cars are unaccounted for, even though both the AVUSD-PD and the tow company stand by their records.”
The grand jury made a recommendation that monies collected by Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department for vehicle release fees be refunded; that a procedure be developed to assure the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department notifies the legal and registered owners of vehicles towed in the future of their right to a tow hearing; that any towing and storage fees paid by any legal owner or registered owner who was denied the opportunity to request a tow hearing be refunded; that restitution be provided to any vehicle owner whose vehicle was lien sold as a result of the vehicle being ordered towed by Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department in excess of its legal authority to do so; that there be a request for proposal (bid) process for any non-district services requested by the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department; that the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department’s geographical area of responsibility and the limits of its authority be clarified to all members of the department; that the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department confirm its primary duty is the protecting school children, school staff, and school property; that all memorandums of understanding with school police departments and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department be reviewed to ensure that jurisdictional authority has not been exceeded by school police departments; and that the appropriate state agency opens an investigation into those aspects of this matter which are beyond the jurisdiction of the grand jury.
While officials were unwilling to disclose the original tow company involved, the Sentinel has learned that it was Big Apple Automotive, which is owned by Jack Collingsworth, one of the original members of the Apple Valley Town Council when the town incorporated in 1988.
A law enforcement source told the Sentinel there had been a number of vehicles towed at the direction of the Apple Valley Unified School District Police which the registered owners lost as a consequence of the lien process that ensued when the owners were unable to pay the combined district vehicle release fee, towing and mounting daily storage fees. Some of those vehicles were “flipped” to the members of the Apple Valley Unified School District, who were then able to sell at a profit the vehicles they had obtained as a consequence of their having directed those cars to be towed, the Sentinel is informed. This explained, the law enforcement source said, Collingsworth’s inability to account for the 510 car discrepancy in his company’s records with regard to the vehicles towed at the AVUSDPD’s direction.
The district police department’s overreach was excessive enough to have garnered public notice, the law enforcement professional said, remarking, “There are only four district police officers. They were making traffic stops all over the town for the last several years and they’ve been having cars towed. Anyone that was out and around saw it going on. The sheriff’s department had to know. [Sheriff] John McMahon lives in Apple Valley.”
Repeated efforts by the Sentinel to reach Collingsworth for his version of events were made. One of his employees said word of the Sentinel’s request for an interview had been passed along to him but that he had “no interest” in discussing the matter with the press.
Apple Valley Unified School District Board Member Richard Sauers told the Sentinel that district superintendent Thomas Hoegerman “is going to give us a report but he has been in Alaska on a vacation cruise, so we have had only limited communication with him by email. He should be back in town by next weekend [July 15/16] and we are hoping for an update from him and our attorney by then. I’m not even sure at this point which of our assistants [i.e., assistant superintendents] is in charge now that Tom is gone.”
At the time the Sentinel spoke with Sauers, he said, “I have not read the [grand jury] report. I only have what I have been told and what was in the [news]paper to go on.” The reports of the excessive number of tows and the flipping of those vehicles after the registered owners lost them through liens he said, “are pretty striking. I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but it has gotten my attention. I am sure we [the board] are going to have a busy session after the break. Beyond that, I am not comfortable saying anything until we get some direction from Tom and Maggie [i.e., Margaret Chidester, district’s legal counsel] on how to proceed on this thing.” He referred further questions to Chidester.
Chidester told the Sentinel “We will be reviewing the [grand jury] report with the board and I anticipate getting direction then on how the district will respond. That will not take place until the meeting on August 3.”
Chidester was vague in responding to whether district officials recognized before the grand jury inquiry began that the school district police were exceeding their authority in making the excessive number of stops . She evaded the question as to whether the district now recognized that members of the district police department had used their putative authority to make traffic stops and have vehicles towed to enhance their own financial benefit.
“You are getting into areas I cannot at present address,” she said. “That was not contained in the grand jury report and I am not at liberty to go beyond that.”
Asked if the district had the financial resources to, as the grand jury recommended, recompense all of those who lost vehicles or paid substantial fees to cover towing and the storage of their vehicles in those cases where the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department ordered those cars to be towed in excess of its legal authority to do so, Chidester said, “I do understand that the grand jury report does make a recommendation of restitution. It would be premature to comment on that before the board has been given the opportunity to fully discuss the grand jury report and all of its ramifications.”
Asked if the district has begun or will undertake an independent investigation of the matter, Chidester said, “We will consider the circumstance and if that necessitates additional work, that will be done.”
Chidester said neither she nor Hoegerman are in a position to provide much information about the scandal at present.
“It is very important for staff and counsel to receive the direction of the board before we respond,” she said.
By Mark Gutglueck