Tuesday, July 4, 2017
[San Bernardino County] Grand Jury: Apple Valley school district police wrongly collected fees for 727 vehicle tows
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories that will detail Grand Jury findings. Next week, the Daily Press will report on the jury’s broach of ambulance availability and bed delay in the High Desert, oversight at charter schools and more.
APPLE VALLEY — School district police here ordered 727 vehicles towed in three years, wrongly collecting a charge for each vehicle release, many of which they had no authority to cite and tow, according to a San Bernardino County Civil Grand Jury Report released Friday.
A Grand Jury investigation found that the Apple Valley Unified School District Police Department (AVUSD-PD) ordered the vehicles towed through a single, unnamed tow company in the town without any written contract, and jurors ultimately called for the district to refund wrongly towed drivers. The amount of refunds, based on typical towing and storage charges and fees, easily could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.
Without speculating whether or not district employees may have violated sections of the Penal Code and could be charged with crimes, the Grand Jury recommended that “The appropriate state agency opens an investigation into this matter which is beyond the jurisdiction of the Grand Jury.”
The Grand Jury found that in the same three-year period, from January 2014 to December 2016, the Hesperia Unified School District Police Department did not tow any vehicles, while the San Bernardino Unified School District Police Department, four times the size of AVUSD-PD, towed 272 vehicles.
For each tow, AVUSD-PD required a Vehicle Release Fee — which the district’s Board of Trustees voted in May 2015 to increase from $95 to $120 — to be paid by the driver before retrieving their vehicle, the report said.
Margaret A. Chidester, whose law office spoke on behalf of AVUSD on Friday, told the Daily Press that the district “voluntarily responded to all requests for documents and testimony” from the Grand Jury and “has already begun to examine school police practices and to make improvements in procedures.”
The AVUSD-PD has a chief, five regular officers, six part-time reserve officers, one dispatch supervisor, one dispatcher and two part-time clerical staff, the Grand Jury said. The Grand Jury reviewed almost 3,000 citations issued by district police in the three-year period, averaging about 2.7 citations per day. The majority “were for non-hazardous moving vehicle code violations,” such as expired registration or driver’s license.
The Grand Jury’s findings (F), paired with its recommendations (R), include:
• F: District police relied on a California Vehicle Code section that does not authorize them to charge a Vehicle Release Fee, as they are not a city, county or state agency.
R: Refund any monies collected for Vehicle Release fees.
• F: District police did not notify vehicle owners of their right to a post-storage hearing, as required by state vehicle code.
R: Refund any towing and storage fees paid by any legal vehicle owner denied the opportunity to request a tow hearing and develop a procedure to notify owners of their right to a hearing.
• F: In many cases, district police did not have the authority to stop, cite and tow vehicles. Many owners could not pay the tow and storage fees, and their vehicles were lien sold.
R: Provide restitution to any owners whose vehicle was lien sold.
• F: District police used only one tow service “for a number of years” without a contract or MOU.
R: Engage in a Request for Proposal process for any non-district services.
• F: The majority of district police’s stops, citations and authorized tows exceeded their authority “since most instances did not indicate an immediate threat to persons or property.”
R: Clarify the district Police Department’s geographical area of responsibility and limits of authority.
• F: AVUSD has operated without a signed MOU with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
R: Review all MOUs with school police departments and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department to ensure jurisdictional authority is not exceeded by district police.
Finally, AVUSD-PD’s log of tows does not match that of the towing company’s, with the district claiming 510 tows that the company “could not explain, nor accept,” according to sworn testimony from a company representative cited in the report.
Chidester said the district “will faithfully consider the report’s recommendations” and respond to its findings as legally required.
The Daily Press was unable to reach AVUSD officials for further comment on Friday. Chidester said the district “is in brief recess until after the July 4th holiday.”
“At this point in time, the Board of Trustees needs to meet and consider the report carefully,” Chidester said. “After they’ve had to opportunity to do that, there may be further response.”
The next regularly scheduled AVUSD board meeting is set for Aug. 3.
June 30, 2017
By Charity Lindsey