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For Whom The Road Tolls

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.



  1. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I’m not sure on this one. I’d need to know more info to better understand. FDOT may be making the stops for multiple reasons. I know there are usually law enforcement officers stationed at or near toll plazas. Florida does have major drug problems and is an import point for alot of contraband moving north. If the FDOT were receiving counterfeit bills they would notify the secret service, which is the lead agency for counterfeit currency. I also know from experience it’s hard to get them to respond even for a fake $100 bill. They like larger quantities. There may be a larger enforcement program going on and FDOT is just part of it. We’d need more info to correctly determine whats going on and that may be difficult. The on peculiar statement I find is the reference to an FDOT form where workers state a reason based on race and age. While the type of profiling is not unusual, most agencies would never have it in print. If it was part of a record they would be just 2 of many indicators as reason for the detainment.

    Monday, March 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink
  2. starluna wrote:

    If a toll worker refused to allow you passage through a toll because they refused to take your money (especially given the easy technology available to detect most forms of counterfeiting), that would be considered unlawful detention. There is about 175 years worth of case law on the circumstances under which you can be stopped, searched, or detained by the state and this does not even come remotely close to any of them.

    Any government agent who seeks to stop or detain any individual must have at least reasonable suspicion. Recent case law has been none too sympathetic to non-police rationale for detainment without proper documentation. This is likely the reason.

    What FDOT should hope for is that federal DOJ decides to forgo the opportunity to sue them for violating Title VI regulations prohibiting both intentional discrimination (which it appears there may be evidence of) and discriminatory impact.

    What makes me angry about this kind of thing is the simple stupidity of the whole thing. Even if there was no racial/ethnic discrimination allegations, the behavior of these toll workers is simply inexcusable. It’s as if it was simply a power trip for them. This is the kind of thing that gives all government workers a bad name.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Permalink
  3. starluna wrote:

    Sorry, that second paragraph should say that this is likely the reason for the forms. Those forms are likely there to actual monitor the use of unlawful racial profiling. I wouldn’t be surprised if federal DOT made them do that too.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink
  4. PatriotSGT wrote:

    I agree Starluna. If employees took it uponn themselves to do this I’d be livid, but I’d blame the management because they don’t know what their employees are doing, even when they’ve received complaints. Within the Fed among the many brilliant and competent employees there are many in levels of management that are enept to say it nicely. I have seen and worked with GS14 and 15 managers along with SES managers that couldn’t lead a girl scout troop through a mall, and didn’t know how to do the job they were assigned to manage. A title does not a manager make. I have seen people promoted for looks and who they know, more then what they know. Anyway, sorry to get off target.

    Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink