Sunday, July 30, 2017
[San Bernardino County] Towed vehicles prove profitable for AVUSD, Big Apple Automotive
Apple Valley Unified School District Police deposited nearly $54,000 worth of vehicle release fees into the district’s general fund in the last two fiscal years, according to the district’s attorney, fees which the San Bernardino County Grand Jury found no legal basis for in a recent investigation.
But the amount seems slight compared to what the owners of 727 vehicles ordered towed by AVUSD-PD between 2014 and 2016 might have paid in towing and storage fees, which went exclusively to Big Apple Automotive.
Big Apple Automotive, which is owned by former Apple Valley Town Councilman Jack F. Collingsworth, was identified by AVUSD attorney Margaret Chidester as the sole towing company the district used up until December, after the Grand Jury began its investigation. The district now rotates between three tow service vendors, she said.
The San Bernardino Unified School District Police Department, four times the size of AVUSD-PD, towed 272 vehicles in the same three-year period, while Hesperia Unified School District police did not tow any, according to the Grand Jury report, which was released June 30.
Moreover, the Grand Jury said AVUSD-PD did not have the authority to issue many of the 3,000 citations that it reviewed, the majority of which “were for non-hazardous moving vehicle code violations,” such as expired registration or driver’s license.
Instead, AVUSD has operated without a signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, the Grand Jury found. Currently, AVUSD Superintendent Thomas Hoegerman and Chief of Police Cesar Molina “are in the process of preparing a draft MOU with the Sheriff’s Office to clarify respective responsibilities and support for the other agency,” Chidester said, which Hoegerman will recommend for AVUSD Board approval next month.
Finally, AVUSD-PD’s log of tows does not match that of Big Apple Auto, with the district claiming 510 tows that Big Apple Automotive could not explain, according to the Grand Jury report.
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 Grand Jury report said.
“The Vehicle Code used (by AVUSD-PD) to justify the increase does not permit a school district to charge a Vehicle Release Fee because a school police department is not a ‘city, county, or city and county, or a state agency’ but is a Special District,” the report states. “The Grand Jury was unable to establish any legal basis for charging such a fee by the AVUSD-PD.”
Chidester said funds collected for vehicle release are deposited into the district’s general fund, labeled “Miscellaneous Income.”
During the July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016 fiscal year, AVUSD-PD deposited $23,150.00 in vehicle release fees; during the 2016-17 fiscal year, it deposited $30,840.00. Chidester said she would provide the amount of fees the district collected in fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15 next week.
But the Grand Jury called for the district to refund wrongly towed vehicle owners not only for vehicle release fees, but also for any towing and storage fees paid if they were denied the opportunity to request a tow hearing. Based on typical towing and storage charges and fees, the amount of refunds could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Additionally, an unknown number of vehicles were lien sold by Big Apple Auto for fees accrued, the report said. The Grand Jury recommended that “restitution” be provided to these vehicle owners.
The district has not yet announced anything in terms of possible reimbursement.
But the Grand Jury’s investigation was not the only one that took place in the AVUSD-PD recently.
One “complaint” led to a district investigation into AVUSD-PD’s citation correction practices, Chidester said.
According to an anonymous source, a former AVUSD-PD dispatcher would change the citations written out by officers, which would be against AVUSD-PD policy if done without proper permission. According to Chidester, no criminal activity was found and no personnel were found out of compliance as a result of the investigation.
Another complaint about the AVUSD-PD led the district to hire The Titan Group to conduct an investigation last year, the report from which “is not yet final,” Chidester said. An investigator with Titan told the Daily Press they could not comment on any investigation or even confirm its existence without the permission of their clients.
Chidester said she could not offer further comment on the investigation due to “certain legal limitations on disclosure of citizen complaints against police officers.”
“We are in the process of working through these now with respect to the referenced complaint,” Chidester said, adding that more information could likely be provided next week.
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.
To be hired by AVUSD, officers must have — among other things — a Basic Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Certificate, proving they’ve completed the minimum of 12 months of probation, according to Chidester.
The district hires only Level 1 Reserve Officers according to the legislature established for reserve peace officers, Chidester said, Level 1 being those who “may work alone and perform the same duties as full-time regular officers.”
The officers receive training three times a year from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and orientation upon being hired, “during which a veteran officer in the department will work with the new officer.” They also participate in biweekly briefings led by Chief Molina, she said.
“The District Human Resources Department manages all aspects of the screening, interviewing, and selection process for AVUSD-PD officers,” Chidester said. “Those who meet the minimum qualifications are interviewed by a panel of approximately four District administrators, typically including Chief of Police Cesar Molina, Superintendent Hoegerman, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, and a school principal.”
Molina, who answers directly to AVUSD Superintendent Hoegerman, joined the school district police as a reserve officer in 2003, Chidester said. He began serving as a school police officer in 2004 and became Chief in December, 2014.
Without speculating whether 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.”
When the report was released, Chidester said the district “voluntarily responded to all requests for documents and testimony” and “has already begun to examine school police practices and to make improvements in procedures.”
She said the Board of Trustees needs to consider the report. Their next regularly scheduled meeting is set for Aug. 3. AVUSD has 90 days from the June 30 release of the Grand Jury report to provide a formal response.
July 21, 2017
By Charity Lindsey