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Toll Operators Have Upper Hand on Florida Turnpike

Motorists travelling through the Florida Turnpike can expect to be held and questioned if they choose to pay tolls with large bills, a federal appeals court says.

A federal judge in Tampa improperly refused to dismiss a class action that claimed toll operators on the Florida Turnpike unlawfully detained and interrogated motorists and passengers paying toll with a $50 bill or higher, and in some cases denominations as low as $5, the 11th Circuit ruled.

In February, 2011 a class of motorists sued the State of Florida, the Florida Department of Transportation, Fanueil Inc., a personnel company, and eight individuals for civil rights violations and false imprisonment over a Bill Detection policy implemented to guard against payment of tolls with counterfeit bills.

Toll operators barricaded drivers paying with big bills and threatened to call police if they did not agree to release personal information that included the description of their car, driver's license, race, age and gender, the class claimed.

Florida knew the policy was unconstitutional and implemented it anyway, the complaint alleged.

In May, 2011 U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara denied the state's motion to dismiss the case.

Faneuil argued it was not responsible for its employees' actions and pointed out that the practice of detaining big bill paying motorists ended in 2010, making the class' injunctive relief claim moot.

"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 in his 2011 decision. "Many of the intra office written communications of July and August 2010 describe the termination as temporary."

The class had shown the policy violated its Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizures and protection from arrest without probable cause, tossing the state's qualified immunity argument, Judge Lazzara ruled.

Lazzara did, however, dismiss the false imprisonment claim against the eight individuals listed in the lawsuit.

The 11th Circuit disagreed with Lazzara's ruling and stated that motorists cannot accuse Florida of coercion because they choose to pay tolls with big bills.

It also ruled that because the Bill Detection policy ended in 2010, the claims are moot, reversing the lower courts decision.

"The fact that a person is not free to leave on his own terms at a given moment, however, does not, by itself, mean that the person has been 'seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment," the 11th Circuit wrote.

A toll booth stop and a delay in a motorist's release enforced by the State and toll booth operator do not constitute a seizure under the Fourth, the court noted.

"The operator of a toll road has the right to set reasonable terms conditions for its use," the court says.

The 11th Circuit wrote: "There are no allegations in the complaint that allow us to conclude that the Chandlers were 'forced' to submit to the allegedly unconstitutional delay. They do not allege that they were forced to drive on the turnpike. They chose to drive on the turnpike. They do not allege that they had no notice they would have to stop at toll booths and pay tolls. In choosing to drive on a toll road, they implicitly consented to stopping at toll booths (which stops they concede are not unconstitutional detentions) and paying tolls to enjoy the privilege of using the toll road.

"The Chandlers have not alleged that they were forced to pay their tolls with large-denomination bills, thereby subjecting themselves to whatever delay was caused by completion of the Bill Detection Report. They chose to pay their toll with large-denomination bills. Nor have they alleged that they asked to withdraw the large report-triggering bill in favor of a smaller delay-free bill and were denied that opportunity."

"Payment with a large-denomination bill and compliance with the Bill Detection Report procedure is an alternative that motorists are free to accept or refuse," the 11th Circuit wrote.

The court also noted that the class failed to "state a plausible claim of seizure under the Fourth Amendment" because motorists "were free to retrieve their large denomination bill and exit the Turnpike immediately."

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