Tuesday, August 8, 2017
[San Bernardino County] Apple Valley School District talks towing controversy
APPLE VALLEY — Big Apple Automotive has retained an attorney since being identified as the company at the center of a Grand Jury investigation into more than 700 vehicles ordered towed by school district police here.
On Thursday, during the first Apple Valley Unified School District board meeting held since the report’s release, Board President Wilson So said they’d would discuss the San Bernardino County Grand Jury’s report released June 30 in closed session.
The report found that the AVUSD-PD ordered 727 vehicles towed between January 2014 and December 2016, many of which they lacked the authority to cite and tow.
President So reported back from closed session that the board gave direction to Superintendent Thomas Hoegerman to continue preparing the district’s response for filing with the Superior Court by Sept. 28.
“Once the report is filed, it will be available to the public,” AVUSD attorney Margaret Chidester said Friday. “The Board directed the Superintendent and the District Chief of Police to continue their examination and upgrading of school police procedures and practices in consideration of the primary mission of school police to assure student and staff safety at school and at school activities, and to protect District property. ”
The board also approved a consent agenda item for a Memorandum of Understanding between the district and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Thursday, “regarding concurrent jurisdiction.”
Chidester said this MOU will “clarify respective responsibilities and support between the two agencies.”
The map in the Grand Jury that marks locations where citations were issued by AVUSD-PD shows several as far as three to four miles away from district school sites.
Chidester said “there are no hard and fast physical boundaries beyond which school police may not act while on AVUSD business,” citing Penal Code section 830.32 that defines the authority of school police officers as ”...peace officers whose authority extends to any place in the state for the purpose of performing their primary duty.”
Penal Code defines this as ensuring “the safety of school district personnel and pupils, and the security of the real and personal property of the school district.”
AVUSD-PD requires a Vehicle Release Fee be paid by towed vehicle drivers before they can retrieve their vehicle. Chidester confirmed the amounts AVUSD-PD collected in these fees from June 2013 to July this year, for a total of $73,180.
The amount increased each fiscal year; most significantly, it more than doubled between fiscal years 2014-15 and 2015-16, from about $11,000 to about $23,000.
The increase can be explained, at least in part, by the Board of Trustees’ vote to increase the vehicle release fee from $95 to $120 in May 2015. All funds collected were deposited into the district’s general fund, labeled “Miscellaneous Income.”
The Grand Jury report stated that the section of Vehicle Code used by the district to justify the fee increase does not permit them to charge the fee at all, as school police departments are not a “city county, or city and county, or state agency,” but are considered a “Special District.”
But Chidester argued that the code does not “define ‘state agency’ or ‘special district,’” adding that the district “is granted broad authority under Education Code section 35160,” which states that a district may act “in any manner which is not in conflict with ... any law...”
“The Vehicle Code doesn’t prohibit imposition of towing fees by school district to defray the cost of staff time to cite and tow vehicles,” Chidester said.
Chidester said the district does not know the number of vehicles lien sold after being towed by AVUSD-PD, since they were sold by Big Apple Automotive, the sole towing company the district used up until December, owned by former Apple Valley Town Councilman Jack F. Collingsworth.
The Grand Jury report stated that upon paying the release fee, drivers could retrieve their vehicle from the tow company upon paying towing and storage fees, “currently a minimum of $250.00 plus $50.00 per day beyond the first day.”
The report also stated that 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.”
After repeated attempts to reach Jack Collingsworth and Big Apple Automotive, an email response from Jessica Collingsworth stated that “All inquiries should be directed to legal counsel: Debra Popineau.”
Popineau told the Daily Press via email that she “was retained (last) Friday to work with Big Apple Automotive, Inc.”
″... whenever my client receives a call from a peace officer asking for a vehicle to be towed, my client complies,” Popineau said. “Whenever a government entity formally requests documentation, my client complies.”
She said she advised her clients to avoid the “possible complication” of speaking with a reporter and being subject to cross-examination during the “ongoing investigatory processes.”
“We don’t have any statement to make to you at this time,” Popineau said.
Also approved by the AVUSD board Thursday was a 2017-2018 retainer agreement with The Titan Group, Professional Investigations, the same group the district used to conduct an investigation last year after a complaint was filed about the AVUSD-PD. Chidester told the Daily Press the investigation report “is not yet final” and did not offer further comment due to “certain legal limitations on disclosure of citizen complaints against police officers.”
Responding to another issue raised in the report — drivers not always being provided CHP 180 forms (outlining rights at a post-storage hearing) — Chidester said the Grand Jury “fails to acknowledge” the AVUSD-PD’s longstanding process of physically handing drivers their form.
“Multiple drivers have requested and received the return of their vehicles as a result of this written notification practiced by the District prior to the Grand Jury’s commencing an investigation,” Chidester said.
She also noted that the district “has already taken steps to enhance” their practices, including a directive from Chief Molina in March “outlining vehicle towing procedures to ensure that vehicle owners are also mailed a CHP Form 180 notice.”
August 4, 2017
By Charity Lindsey