TAMPA, Florida -- Meet Joel Chandler, who just paid his $1.00 toll on the Polk Parkway with a $100 bill, he is not allowed to leave unless he provides personal info to the toll taker. The toll taker tells Chandler this is what happens when they get large bills. She says this is what they have to do.
Chandler says to the toll taker, "So I'm being detained?" She says, "Yes sir."
It is a policy the Florida Turnpike authority instituted for people who paid with $20, $50 or $100 bills. After it happened once, Chandler kept testing the system and taped his encounters as he went through the toll booths.
One time a toll taker told him she wouldn't give him his change unless he gave her the information. Chandler replied, "So I'm being detained." He asked why he was being detained but never got an answer.
Chandler says this is a serious criminal offense, to detain someone without proper legal authority. He says that is exactly what the department is doing.
When Chandler called and emailed the Florida Department of Transportation to complain about the policy, he was told there is no policy to detain people who give large bills. He says that made him more concerned, because that meant there were individual rogue toll takers detaining people.
The practice continued at toll booth after toll booth and, if someone refused to provide the information, they were threatened with arrest. One toll taker told Chandler's brother Robert, "I could call FHP. Would you like me to do that, sir?" Robert Chandler asked why she would call the Florida Highway Patrol when he was being illegally detained and the toll taker said he could come up with another form of tender.
Chandler continued to complain and on July 21 at 7:19 p.m., he received an email from the assistant General Counsel of FDOT saying essentially the department didn't know what he was talking about and they don't have sufficient information to investigate. However, earlier that same day, there were a flurry of e-mails going back and forth in the department saying shut the program down, temporarily suspend it and asking who should call Chandler and what they should say.
According to Chandler, not only was the D.O.T. not being truthful about the policy existing, but he also says they made a concerted effort to cover it up.
One reason the department might not have wanted the public to know about the program is because of who was being detained.
Chandler says he thinks it's clear from their own documents there was a lot of racial profiling going on.
And when you look at the documents from the Florida Department of Transportation, you see there was a policy change about detaining people who gave a $20 bill. The Department decided to leave it up to the discretion of the toll takers to decide who was suspicious.
The courts have ruled that is unconstitutional, because it allows the preferences and prejudices of an individual to make the decision.
Chandler says 87 percent of the times toll takers took the time to fill out the form as to why they stopped someone it was a racial description like young black male or young Hispanic male.
Although FDOT refused to comment because the Department expects to be sued, internal emails justify the program because of counterfeit bills. However, in a two and a half year period the DOT got $16,000 in counterfeit bills, while at the same time it collected close to $2 billion in tolls ($1,523,825,404).
The Department also spent $32,000 on forms used to catch the $16,000 in funny money. The department also says in e-mails, the program will help law enforcement catch counterfeiters.
However, as Chandler discovered, in the 885 times the D.O.T. claims it received counterfeit money, not one time was it referred to any law enforcement agency of any description.
Meantime, Chandler estimates the illegal detainment has happened at least 5 million times. He says it has been crime upon crime upon crime, lie upon lie upon lie. He says it's disturbing because the Department got its hands caught in the cookie jar.
That's why Chandler wants to file a class action suit against the state. He says what it comes down to it the Department of Transportation will be found by the courts to be involved in the largest criminal conspiracy in the state.
And if the court were to award everyone who was detained even a small amount to compensate them, it could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
First Coast News