Saturday, February 04, 2006

"Everybody here is an enemy of the state; a scofflaw, a toll cheat."

TollTag court: A driver's nightmare

February 4, 2006


News 8 Investigates
Dallas/Fort Worth
Copyright 2006

Every day, more than a million vehicles enter a toll plaza in North Texas, and more than a million motorists breeze through the barriers using radio technology.

The TollTag mounted in their windshield identifies the vehicle to the North Texas Tollway Authority's computer network and charges the user's account—no stopping, no coins needed.
For most drivers, it's a great system. But for everybody at "TollTag court," it stinks.

It's one of 10 municipal courts in North Texas where—once a week—most of the proceedings are devoted to TollTag cases.

The prosecutor will tell you that everybody here is an enemy of the state; a scofflaw, a toll cheat.

But people like Gail Blair will tell you they didn't know they were criminals until they suddenly received a warrant for their arrest.

"There's a possiblity I could be sitting in jail for a 75 cent toll," Blair complained. "I had a valid TollTag, and I had money in the account. And the court is very aware of that."

Blair received a warrant for her arrest stemming from 30 "misreads" on her TollTag over a three-year period. The North Texas Tollway Authority says as many as 4,000 vehicles a day may be misreads.

For two years, the agency sent bills to her at the wrong address, even though her correct address was on file with both the NTTA and the state of Texas.

Blair spends about $1,000 on tolls every year, and has always had a valid TollTag.

The warrant for her arrest came from one toll. This is her fifth court appearence trying to get it resolved.

Blair can wage her court battle because she has a night job. Most of the people summoned to TollTag court aren't as lucky; they have day jobs. So they pay a fine because they can't spare the time and money to fight the system.

Is this justice?

"No, it's not," said Ward Maedgen, Gail Blair's lawyer. "It forces hard working people to come down to court and spend their day in court."

On her previous four visits Blair represented herself and faced more than $350 in fines and court costs. This time—with Maedgen along—the prosecutor offered to settle her case for $50.
No deal, Blair says.

"I don't care if they fine me a penny; I'm not guilty," she said. "I don't care if it's 75 cents, a dollar, a hundred dollars—it doesn't matter to me."

Blair said she is trying to punish the tollway authority and get her money.

The NTTA's Clayton Howe said his system targets only non-responsive customers for court action. He said accused offenders first receive an invoice. Then, after 60 days, the Texas Department of Public Safety sends a citation.

Only then is an arrest warrant issued.

"What we say basically is, we didn't get paid for this transaction. Please contact us at this phone number," Howe said.

Eli Lucero got picked up during a routine stop on New Year's Eve. When he was thrown in jail, he was shocked to discover he'd been arrested on warrants from unpaid tolls in 2004.
"I've tried to pay thee guys their fees at every turn, and all they're trying to do is push more money out of me," Lucero said.

He discovered that some of the so-called violations resulted from the NTTA transposing the numbers on his license plate.

Lucero said he telephoned the NTTA five times to try and resolve the problem. But the agency said its sophisticated call center system has no record of those conversations.

A frustrated Lucero finally gave in and paid $304.75—$4.75 for the allegedly unpaid tolls.

"I won't use the tollway any more," Lucero said. "I'll stick to 635 and the side roads."


© 2006 WFAA-TV