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Court Slams Florida Toll Roads Over Bogus Ticketing
After innocent firefighter nearly loses job over bogus cheating accusation, Florida judge bans toll road photo tickets.

A Florida judge fed up with the treatment of an innocent driver accused of "toll cheating" yesterday ordered Florida toll roads to stop issuing tickets to anyone with valid E-PASS or SunPass accounts. Circuit Judge John Galluzzo also ordered lower court judges in Seminole and Brevard counties to tear up any toll violation ticket issued to motorists with a transponder.

"The Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Turnpike Authority, and Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority are hereby enjoined from filing any toll violation action in the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida... against any prepaid or guaranteed account holder," Galluzo's order stated.

The strong action came in response to a case of an honest driver who did not realize that his wife's toll transponder had malfunctioned until he attempted to renew their vehicle's registration. He was told it had been revoked for toll cheating.

"Christopher M. Baird, an Osceola County Firefighter-Paramedic ran into a firestorm of bureaucracy that even he was not trained nor equipped to handle," Galluzzo wrote in his decision. "This consolidated appeal arises from what can only be characterized from the record as a tragic series of injustices that require the court to not only expedite this appeal but to take immediate remedial action."

The problem started when the battery on an E-PASS transponder in his wife's SUV died in May 2007. An automated ticketing machine began to generate and mail citations to Christopher Baird, who was listed first on the registration. He never received any of them. The Department of Motor Vehicles admitted that it had failed to update its database with the Bairds' new address after they moved in 2004. So although he had no notice, the toll violation statute specifically outlawed the filing of any challenge 75 days after the issuance of a ticket, whether it was ever properly sent or not.

To save his job as a firefighter, which required a valid driver's license, Baird was forced to pay $1448 in fines, plus costs, for sixteen violations so that he could clear his record. After he did so, a further twist in the law imposed 48 points against his driving license -- resulting an immediate license suspension, even though he had not been behind the wheel of the SUV in question.

"To add insult to misery, the appellant, having lost all right to challenge the citations and being faced with the only choice available to have his license reinstated through payment of each citation, was unaware that paying each citation after the time for hearing had expired, constituted an admission of guilt of the commission of a non-criminal moving violation pursuant to chapter 318 of the Florida Statutes, which requires the imposition of 3 points on his driving record, per citation," Galluzzo explained.

Although the Florida Department of Transportation agreed to drop the charges and fines against Baird, Seminole County Judge Ralph Eriksson insisted Baird must pay. Galluzzo overturned Eriksson, ruling not only that Baird was denied due process but also that the concept of photo enforced toll citations violated due process.

"The prosecuting authority has the burden of proving the act occurred and that the appellant committed the act," Galluzzo wrote. "A photographic image of the rear of a vehicle attached to a citation, without proof as to who the driver was at the time of the violation, even in light of this statutes' rebuttable presumptions, is insufficient to enforce the citation issued to the registered owner of the vehicle as against that owner.... The statute attempts to impermissibly shift the burden to the owner of a vehicle to prove they were not the driver."

Galluzzo saw no reason for the court to be involved when a customer like Baird set up an account to pay tolls in advance. The court also refunded all fines, fees, penalties and surcharges assessed against Baird and cleared his license of all suspensions and points.

A full copy of the decision is available in a 40k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Baird v. Florida Department of Transportation (Eighteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, 4/22/2008)

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