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Unconstitutional Stops on Florida Highways

(CN) - A federal class action claims Florida and a private contractor detain drivers on the Florida Turnpike if they pay a toll with a $50 or $100 bill, and won't let them go until they cough up personal information. The class claims the detentions are dangerous and unconstitutional, and that sometimes drivers and passengers are detained and interrogated for paying tolls with bills as small as $5.

The class action in Tampa also names collections company Faneuil as a defendant. Florida hired Faneuil to provide toll collectors and supervisors on its toll roads.

Lead plaintiff Joel Chandler claims the state and Faneuil violate the Constitution by authorizing toll collectors, at their discretion, to imprison motorists and their passengers and hold them until they divulge personal information, some of which is written up on "Bill Detection Reports."

According to the complaint, Milissa Burger, deputy director of toll operations, for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), "directed implementation of bill detection procedures, the related unlawful detentions of motorists and passengers, and the use of Bill Detection Reports, including writing and receiving emails regarding those efforts. She informed recipients of such email correspondence specifically not to copy the legal department on their response to her emails."

The class claims Florida and Faneuil have done the illegal stops for 4 years: "For approximately four years, FDOT and Faneuil have engaged in a practice of detaining motorists and their passengers on the Turnpike System until such motorists provided certain personal information in exchange for their release."

The class calls it an unconstitutional search and seizure, and says Florida and Faneuil knew it was unconstitutional

"Defendants had actual, constructive or imputed knowledge of the FDOT policy, practice or custom whereby motorists and their passengers were unlawfully detained on the Turnpike System and forced to provide personal information in exchange for their release," the complaint states.

"The personal information recorded by toll collectors includes, but is not limited to the vehicle make, model, color, tag number and state of issuance. Other information such as the vehicle occupants' race, gender, and relative age has also been recorded." The class adds: "Toll collectors have required motorists to provide additional personal information, including drivers license information in exchange for their release."

Toll collectors trapped motorists at toll booths by holding the barrier down, even though the drivers had enough money to pay the toll.

"Plaintiffs knew they were not free to leave the toll plaza. Going forward was controlled and blocked by toll operators and supervisors, going backward was illegal as well as blocked by other vehicles, all other directions were blocked, leaving the vehicle was unsafe, and would have meant abandoning valuable property."

The toll collectors threatened to call police if drivers or passengers resisted the "bill detection procedures" and the demands for personal information.

The complaint adds: "The policy of detaining motorists without their consent and without legal justification extended throughout the Turnpike System and was so permanent and well settled that it constituted custom, practice or policy which has the force of law and rises to the level of deliberate indifference to plaintiff's and class members' constitutional rights."

The class seeks damages for civil rights violations and false imprisonment. They are represented by James Valenti with Valenti Campbell of Lakeland, Fla.

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