Toll authorities in Orlando area get hellish publicity from populist judge over violations messup
By Peter Samuel
A bombastic and one-sided opinion by an appeals court judge has got toll authorities in central Florida some hellish publicity in the local media. Judge John D Galluzo of the 18th Circuit (Seminole and Brevard counties) has dismissed all sixteen unpaid tolls and violation penalties against a firefighter Christopher Baird. He also issued an order which prohibits the filing of toll violations in the two counties without a sworn statement by a toll authority officer that the violator does not have a prepaid toll account. He also ordered the dismissal of pending toll violation cases where such an affidavit has not been filed.
The 14 page opinion by Judge Galluzzo - who is running for re-election this November - was presented as "fuming against the injustices" perpetrated against a firefighter by the toll authorities. Galluzzo in his colorful opinion said that the firefighter "ran into a firestorm of bureaucracy" and suffered "a tragic series of injustices"as if he were a totally blameless victim of the unfair toll authorities.
Blame to share
In fact there was blame to go around: some clearly with the state and with the tollers, but some with Baird. That more complex reality is at odds with Galluzzo's politically driven anger-arousing narrative of predatory tollers deliberately trapping an innocent firefighter hero in a bureaucratic and legal nightmare. The media in Florida seem to have swallowed Gallluzzo's narrative whole.
Read Galluzzo's opinion here:
The problem first surfaced when Baird tried to renew a motor vehicle registration on the car his wife used Dec 30, 2007. He was denied renewal because as the owner he was on record as having 16 unpaid tolls and penalties going back to early in the year with Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE). The violations were on the far northern segment of FL417 operated by FTE.
When he paid the outstanding tolls and penalties at this late point Baird didn't realize he was pleading guilty to many counts of toll evasion which under Florida law were sufficient to lose him his drivers license. His job as a county firefighter requires him to have a valid drivers license, so his livelihood was then threatened by his inadvertent guilty pleas.
The judge says in his opinion that Baird's problem started with a "faulty (E-PASS) transponder" from the Orlando Orange County Expressway Authority although he had an account with a positive balance.
Baird received no notices in the mail because a clerk at the state motor registry (Department of Safety and Motor Vehicles) had failed to update his address when he moved, even though he had filed a change of address notice. And the US Postal Service must have also failed to forward his mail.
FTE spokesman Christa Deason says the first problem seems have been expiring batteries in Baird's transponder (not a "faulty transponder" as the judge says). FTE equipment recorded low strength signals from the transponder typical of expiring batteries. Unlike most states where transponders have a permanent fixed battery, Florida transponders (SunPass and E-PASS) are mostly equipped with a sliding door, and the motorist inserts or swaps out two common AA batteries bought at the supermarket or wherever.
Ignored low battery warnings
Baird apparently ignored low battery warnings including an audible bad read tone and yellow and red lights showing on the transponder after the toll point pass.
FTE's customer service center also generates letters to motorists about transponders with battery power too weak for a signal read, but because of the motor registry clerk's error and the USPS apparent failure to forward, Baird got no replace-your-batteries-please letter in the mail.
Without knowing the terminology Judge Galluzzo wrote in his opinion (p11) that the toll authorities could have easily done a video toll (termed an 'I-Toll' in Florida) when Baird's transponder failed to be read since he had a toll account with a positive balance at OOCEA.
Failed to get new vehicle attached to account
Trouble was the vehicle in question - registered in his name but used by his wife - was never attached to Baird's OOCEA E-PASS account, FTE says. Baird only had his own vehicle on record as attached to his toll account, FTE says, not the second vehicle that ran up the 16 'violations'.
Unclear in this account is how the Bairds got the transponder for the 'violating' vehicle. If the customer wants an additional transponder because the family has acquired a new vehicle then usually they fill in the vehicle details including the license plate number in the application to get sent a second transponder.
Maybe the transponder was an old one that was transferred across from a former vehicle sold by the Bairds when they got the new vehicle, and they switched the transponder across to the new vehicle without telling OOCEA to update their vehicle details ont eh account? Or else they called OOCEA's customer service center and it screwed up by not updating their details.
Electronic toll account contracts and marketing materials tell motorists they have to update license plate information at the toll authority when they transfer the transponder to a new vehicle. The Bairds didn't do that, FTE says.
In any case like most toll authorities nowadays FTE run all license plate numbers of vehicles without a readable transponder against SunPass and E-PASS records of license plates attached to accounts in good standing. It is done routinely thousands of times a day by computer. Where the license plate is found to be attached to a good toll account it is automatically debited as a video toll (I-Toll in Florida).
If they can't find the license plate of the non-read vehicle on any toll account list then it is seen as a violator, beginning a process of generating letters to the owner. They first ask for toll payment, then if that is ignored demand a penalty as well. If that is ignored it turns into a misdemeanor citation for a moving offense of evading a toll. At each point where a penalty is involved there is an opportunity to contest the charges.
But of course if the mailings are misaddressed and not forwarded by the postal service then the motorist may be unaware of the accumulating liabilities.
The tollers need to do more to ensure their mailings are getting delivered and to find ways to update addresses when movers don't notify them. And perhaps they need to check vehicles that the owner neglected to attach to the toll account against accounts held by the same owner - though it is unclear they have the legal power to toll a vehicle not attached to the toll account.
Lower court injustice
In the lower court hearing, Deason says, FDOT supported Baird's lawyer's motion to have his tolls and penalties quashed agreeing that the screwup by the motor vehicle registry in failing to update his address was responsible for the mailed notices going astray. FDOT had filed a "Stipulated Motion for Withdrawal of Plea" - legalese for an admission of error by the state and a request for the case to be dropped.
Inexplicably a lower court ignored FDOT's plea and Baird's and upheld the fines and penalties as valid.
Judge Galluzzo says there is no lower court transcript explaining this wrong ruling against Baird.
Both toll authorities go along with the Judge's dismissal of the penalties against Baird. However Galluzzo's ruling that county clerks require that every future citation be accompanied by an affidavit from the toll authority that the violator doesn't have a good account sounds unworkable and unncessary.
OOCEA's chairman Rich Crotty has already said his authority disagrees with the Judge's opinion. Deason says only that FTE's legal people are reviewing Galluzzo's court order.
COMMENT: Shame on the media in Florida for failing to point out that Galluzzo is a political judge seeking re-election and looking to make a splash as the little man's hero. The Judge served up a heavy dose of populist baloney along with his justice.