If you attempt to pay a highway toll Florida with a 20 dollar bill (or larger), you could be detained and not allowed to leave until you provide identification. That sounds inconvenient, but detaining someone without legal authority is actually a serious crime.
So Florida resident Joel Chandler called and emailed the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to ask why they were doing this, and they responded that there was no policy to detain people who use large bills. And yet pretty much every time he attempted to pay a road toll with a large bill, he was either detained or threatened with arrest unless he came up with a smaller bill. Chandler continued to complain to FDOT, but continued to be told by them that they didn’t know what he was talking about.
However, internal FDOT emails show that not only did they know about the policy, but that they knew it was illegal and tried to cover it up. But that still doesn’t explain why they were doing it in the first place.
Chandler thinks that it was motivated by racial bias. The toll takers have a form they can fill out when they stop someone who is “suspicious” and it has a place to write down the reason. 87% of the reasons given were racial descriptions such as “young black male” or “young hispanic male”.
What makes this even crazier is that the internal emails try to justify this practice as a way to combat counterfeit bills. After all, using a large bill to pay a small toll seems like a handy way for a criminal to pass those bills and get back real change.
However, over a two and a half year period, FDOT only received $16,000 in counterfeit bills. In response, they spent $32,000 just on the forms they printed to try to stop counterfeiting. Of course, one could claim that it is reasonable to spend that extra money, since they are helping to catch counterfeiters. And yet, in the 885 times FDOT claimed it received counterfeit money, they never referred a single case to any law enforcement agency.
Chandler estimates that the illegal detainment happened at least five million times. If a class action suit were filed against FDOT, and the court were to award everyone who was illegally detained even a small amount of compensation, it would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the real issue here is that the state is doing something illegal, and is even trying to cover it up. This is an excellent example of why we need transparency in government.