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9/18/2008Delaware Toll Roads to Seize Cars
Police in Delaware have authority to seize any automobile registered to an owner accused of not paying tolls.
Delaware officials announced Monday that a new punishment will be imposed on motorists accused of not paying tolls. A state law approved in July empowers police with on-the-spot authority to seize vehicles belonging to anyone whose name appears in a computer database list of toll cheats. This means that, rather than go through the hassle and expense of proving this crime in a court of law before a neutral judge or jury, officers now enjoy the full power of imposing sentence on the roadside.
"Make no mistake, we will be out there and, when necessary, we will impound vehicles," Delaware State Police spokesman Jeff Whitmarsh said in a statement. "The intent of the law is clear and we will enforce it accordingly. Once a vehicle is impounded, notification may be given to other toll facilities along I-95 to be cross-checked for possible excessive toll violations in other jurisdictions."
The state will keep an impounded vehicle until the owner either pays the tolls, fines, impound and towing charges or proves his own innocence before a civil hearing officer. Such hearings are conducted under a reduced standard of legal proof favoring the state interest. Because no court oversight is required for the seizures, local police will be able to use electronic scanning systems known as Bootfinder or Plate Hunter to round up vehicles for seizure without the driver's knowledge.
The law specifies initially that cars may only be taken if the alleged total of unpaid tolls and penalty fees exceeds $1000, but Delaware has a history of boosting penalties for this infraction. In March 2007, the state began charging drivers accused of toll evasion with felony theft.
The fully automated systems that toll roads use to accuse motorists of cheating are far from perfect. In Texas, 50,000 motorists were overbilled by a system described by officials as having "zero defects." Virginia falsely accused 8000 drivers of cheating the state out of $105,000 in revenue last year. According to the accuracy rate determined in an audit of Harris County Toll Road Authority records, 67,000 motorists are falsely accused each year of skipping out on area tolls.
The fines and fees imposed on drivers who have faulty transponders can also be significant. An Illinois woman who did not notice that her credit card had expired was hit with $4620 in fines. A Florida judge was so outraged at the Florida Turnpike Authority's treatment of a volunteer firefighter falsely accused of toll cheating that he issued an injunction prohibiting "cheating" fines from being levied against drivers with valid toll accounts (read decision).
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