(CN) – A class action can proceed against the Florida Department of Transportation over a policy to detain and interrogate motorists who try to pay tolls with big bills, even if the bill is just $5, a federal judge ruled.
In its complaint, the class accused toll operators of “detaining motorists and their passengers” paying toll with a $50 bill or higher, but also “denominations as low as $5.” The motorists can drive away only after they cough up personal information such as descriptions of their vehicles and drivers’ licenses. Details about their race, gender and age are also recorded.
The class claimed the transportation department had authorized this practice, and filed a false-imprisonment suit against it, several department employees and Faneuil Inc., a contractor that which provides toll personnel.
Faneuil and the individual defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, which they complained was conclusory.
Arguing that the suit failed to convey Faneuil’s responsibility for its employees’ actions, Faneuil also pointed out that the practice of detaining motorists had ended on July 22, 2010, so the need for injunctive relief was moot.
U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara disagreed.
“None of the documents establish that the decision to stop the practice of detaining motorists was an ‘unambiguous’ decision to cease the practice forever,” Lazzara wrote. “Many of the intra office written communications of July and August 2010 describe the termination as temporary.”
“There was no substantial deliberation in the rather quick decision to stop the practice,” he added. “It is clear that a detained motorist complained to FDOT about the practice, and the practice was immediately stopped to research whether the practice was unlawful. Ceasing to conduct research does militate against a finding that the decision to stop was “well-reasoned,” but instead, hasty and in anticipation of legal action.”
“That FDOT was secretive about its internal decision to halt the practice suggests that it was merely to further consider the continuation of the practice and not to unequivocally terminate the practice once and for all,” the judge wrote.
Lazzara also found that there is no information as to whether the defendants have been consisting applying the new procedure.
“Thus, based on the findings that the cessation was neither ‘unambiguous’ nor the product of ‘substantial deliberation,’ and that there is no indication that a new course of conduct is being ‘consistently applied,’ this action is not moot,” Lazzara wrote.
As it stands now, the judge said the class has alleged conduct that violates the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, which also encompass the right to be free from arrest without probable cause.
Lazzara agreed only to dismiss the false-imprisonment claim against the eight individual defendants.