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In re Wachendorf

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISION


July 3, 2007

IN THE MATTER OF THE TENURE HEARING OF THOMAS WACHENDORF, NEW JERSEY STATE DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

On appeal from a Final Administrative Decision of the State Board of Education, No. 33-05.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued March 6, 2007

Before Judges Payne and Graves.

Thomas Wachendorf appeals from a final decision of the State Board of Education, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10, to dismiss him as a tenured teacher at Mountainview Correctional Facility for conduct unbecoming a public employee following his arrest for eluding, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2b, resisting arrest, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-2a, and obstructing the administration of law, N.J.S.A. 2C:29-1, and his diversion into a county pre-trial intervention (PTI) program, which was successfully completed.

On appeal, Wachendorf argues that his conduct, on May 2, 2004, in failing to stop when directed by the police did not constitute eluding, and that his subsequent conduct upon arriving at his home and during his arrest did not constitute resisting arrest or obstructing the administration of law. Wachendorf argues further that the factual findings of the ALJ, rendered after a hearing and a review of the police videotape of the pursuit, were not sufficient to support the conclusion that Wachendorf's conduct was "unbecoming" and that the conduct constituted just cause for the termination of his employment.

The record includes, among other evidence, the testimony of two police officers, an independent witness employed as a Mercer County assistant prosecutor who observed substantially all of the relevant events, and a videotape of the police's pursuit of Wachendorf from the time that police lights and air horn were activated to Wachendorf's arrest. That evidence, credited by the administrative law judge who conducted a contested hearing in the matter, disclosed that, upon determining that Wachendorf was driving a vehicle that had not been registered for nine months, police officer Christopher DeWire determined to make a motor vehicle stop. However, Wachendorf did not heed the signal to pull over, but instead, continued driving, albeit within the speed limit, for a distance of approximately two miles, only stopping after turning into his driveway, continuing its full length, and reaching its end. The pursuit lasted for approximately five minutes, from three minutes and twenty seconds after ten o'clock in the morning, when the videotape was activated as DeWire turned on the police car's light bar, until eight minutes and eight seconds after ten, when the pursuit finally ended. At four minutes and three seconds after ten, DeWire activated his air horn, and at four minutes and ten seconds, he activated his siren. The siren, punctuated by the air horn, sounded continuously thereafter. Throughout much of the pursuit, the vehicle driven by DeWire was followed by a back-up, unmarked, vehicle, with activated wig-wag lights, driven by Sergeant Scott Crater. Crater's vehicle was followed by that of the assistant prosecutor, an independent observer who happened upon the scene and, upon determining that an eluding appeared to be in progress, offered to serve as a witness to the pursuit and arrest.

The route traveled consisted of country roads, punctuated by two stop signs. Wachendorf stopped at the first only after clearing the center of the intersection. He appropriately stopped at the second. During the course of the pursuit, two cars, proceeding in the opposite direction, pulled off the road to permit the police cars to pass. Wachendorf apparently disregarded the significance of the motorists' actions. Although the roads upon which Wachendorf traveled, in part, had a high crown and no shoulder, frequent driveways and other spaces existed at which he could have stopped with safety. Moreover, after turning into his lengthy gravel driveway, Wachendorf did not immediately stop, but instead proceeded its full length, a process requiring approximately one-half of a minute.

Once stopped, Wachendorf did not exit his vehicle as DeWire commanded on four separate occasions. After sitting for a period of time, and then slightly opening the door without exiting -- a period of essential inactivity spanning seventeen seconds -- Wachendorf was finally forceably removed from his car by DeWire and Crater as he attempted to lean in the opposite direction toward the car's passenger seat. Even after removal, Wachendorf resisted arrest, curling on his side in a fetal position on the ground and then vociferously objecting to police commands that he lie on his stomach. Force was required to secure Wachendorf with handcuffs.

Thereafter, Wachendorf resisted the police's attempt to place him in DeWire's cruiser, attempting to walk in a different direction, refusing to be placed in the vehicle and, once forceably seated, refusing to place his feet in the car. Wachendorf also declined to provide pedigree information, demanding throughout the arrest process to see his lawyer, who was allegedly inside the house. Wachendorf's lack of cooperation continued at the police station, where, among other things, he refused to identify his employer.

At the hearing, Wachendorf gave a different version of the events, claiming that he was unaware of the presence of the police until shortly before he arrived at his driveway, because his stereo, air conditioning and loud muffler blocked the noise of the siren, and because his rear-view mirror had been knocked out of alignment. He stated additionally that he was afraid, as the result of his prior (apparently valid) arrest by DeWire as the result of an outstanding motor vehicle infraction, to pull over until he reached the safety of his home, that he did not hear the police's command that he exit his car, but that after being pulled from it, he acted in an entirely cooperative and non-confrontational manner. Wachendorf's testimony, along with that of his corroborating witness, his brother, was not credited by the administrative law judge, who found the testimony to be incredible and inconsistent with evidence provided by the video.

At the time of the events in issue, Wachendorf was a tenured teacher I at the Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility, where he prepared students ranging in age from eighteen to thirty to take the GED exam. His eight-year record at the school was hitherto unblemished, as was a prior five-year period as a public school teacher in Newark.

In the course of his employment, Wachendorf had been provided with Department of Corrections Human Resources Bulletin 84-19, dated April 3, 2000, receipt of which he acknowledged. The bulletin required that: "Employees who are summoned, arrested or incarcerated as a result of a crime or an offense as defined by N.J.S.A. 2C: Criminal Justice Code of New Jersey, must advise their superior as soon as possible, but not more than 48 hours from the date of the summons, arrest or incarceration."

The hearing record indicates that the first notification to Mountainview of Wachendorf's arrest was received as the result of a call from the Readington police on May 10, eight days after the arrest occurred, although on May 3, the facility had been notified by Wachendorf's brother that Wachendorf was ill and would not be reporting to work, and it received further such daily notifications throughout the week of May 3. Wachendorf claimed that he was incapacitated as the result of injuries inflicted by the police in the course of the arrest,*fn1 but had instructed his attorney, whom he visited on May 4, to inform Mountainview of the events. The record reflects that the attorney's call was received on May 12.

At the hearing, Wachendorf admitted that it is important to exemplify law abiding behavior to inmates to help with their rehabilitation.

Wachendorf was charged with the motor vehicle offenses of driving an unregistered car, failing to produce evidence of insurance, and failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. On July 9, 2004, Wachendorf waived indictment for eluding, resisting arrest and obstructing the administration of law and was diverted into the Hunterdon County PTI program.

On July 21, 2004, a Certificate of Determination was issued by the Department of Education, charging Wachendorf with Conduct Unbecoming a Teacher based upon his arrest and failure to report the arrest to his supervisor. The case was transmitted to the Office of Administrative Law as contested, and hearings were conducted on December 1, 2004 and January 4 and February 4, 2005. The ALJ issued his initial decision on May 9, 2005, sustaining the charges and recommending dismissal. On July 14, 2005, the Commissioner of Education adopted the ALJ's initial decision and, upon appeal, on February 1, 2006, that decision was affirmed by the Board of Education for the reasons expressed by the Commissioner.

Our review of the decision of the Board of Education is limited. As stated by the Supreme Court in Matter of Musick:

Courts can intervene only in those rare circumstances in which an agency action is clearly inconsistent with its statutory mission or other state policy. Although sometimes phrased in terms of a search for arbitrary or unreasonable action, the judicial role is generally restricted to three inquiries: (1) whether the agency's action violates express or implied legislative policies, that is, did the agency follow the law; (2) whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the findings on which the agency bases its action; and (3) whether, in applying the legislative policies to the facts, the agency clearly erred in reaching a conclusion that could not reasonably have been made on a showing of the relevant factors. Campbell v. Department of Civil Serv., 39 N.J. 556, 562 (1963). [Musick, supra, 143 N.J. 206, 216 (1996).]

Our review of the record in this case, in light of Musick's standards, demonstrates no reason for reversal. Contrary to Wachendorf's arguments, the record, and particularly the videotape, which we have reviewed on numerous occasions, provides ample evidential support, apart from considerations relating to Wachendorf's entry into PTI,*fn2 for the findings of fact made by the ALJ and adopted thereafter with respect to Wachendorf's patent disregard for lawful authority throughout the course of the police's pursuit, arrest, and subsequent efforts to transport Wachendorf for booking. Wachendorf's further disregard of established procedures for reporting his arrest to his employer was also appropriately demonstrated by a preponderance of the credible evidence.

As stated in the Commissioner's opinion:

Like the ALJ, the Commissioner is persuaded that the respondent's explanations for his actions lack substance. He offers a curious concatenation of events to explain his behavior which, the Commissioner observes, lack persuasive evidential corroboration in the within record. Rather what is abundantly apparent is that respondent's deportment throughout this incident evidences a total disregard and disrespect for the law and the authority of law enforcement officials. Such behavior is directly contrary and inimical to the expectations placed on teaching staff members and, undeniably, conduct unbecoming a teacher, most particularly for an educator in a corrections facility which is charged with the responsibility of "provid[ing] an environment for incarcerated persons which encourages rehabilitation and reintegration into the community" (N.J.A.C. 10A:1-1.1(6)) as law abiding citizens.

Further, we find no basis for reversal in Wachendorf's arguments that his conduct was insufficient to constitute conduct unbecoming a teacher and that dismissal was too severe a remedy. We conclude instead that the Board of Education, in reaching a contrary determination through its adoption of the Commissioner's opinion, properly executed the Legislature's self-evident goal, in enacting N.J.S.A. 18A:6-10, of ensuring the fitness of the State's teachers for their assigned tasks. A person exhibiting the disregard for lawful authority manifested by Wachendorf throughout the videotape of his conduct and by other evidence of his conduct, could reasonably be found unfit to teach incarcerated young people whose own disregard for the law was a primary correctional focus. As a consequence, we affirm the determination of the Board of Education on the basis of its decision adopting the thoughtful and comprehensive opinion of the Commissioner of Education.

Affirmed.


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