Now the tollway's getting serious
By Robert McCoppin Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted July 17, 2003
The agency that runs Illinois' tollways will soon spread its net much wider to fine drivers who don't pay tolls.
Having already gone after scofflaws with 50 or more unpaid tolls, the agency will send notices within weeks to people with fewer than 50 violations, eventually getting down to people with as few as five unpaid tolls.
The broader enforcement push is raising more objections from drivers and lawyers about the way the tollway is going after violators - with fines up to $70 per toll, more than two years after the violation.
Tollway officials say they're aiming for intentional repeat violators, yet more drivers are complaining that they paid their tolls but are getting fined because coin baskets didn't register the payment.
"I am upset and I am angry," said Sherry King of Elgin, who was fined more than $1,000 for 50 alleged violations. "I really resent the toll authority doing this. What kind of proof can I bring that an unmanned booth isn't working?"
Every weekday, King drives to work from Elgin to Arlington Heights and back, using unmanned tollbooths each way. Frequently, including this week, she said, they don't work.
King said she even put in extra money to activate the machine and thought about trying a different lane, but honking traffic behind her forced her to go through.
Tollway officials say their machines set off an alarm if they stop working, so that people should not be fined for tollbooths that don't work.
To those who paid the toll but drove off before the machine registered, tollway officials say tough luck. Just as when you pay for food at McDonald's, part of the transaction involves waiting to make sure you're paid up.
And for those who object that they're only finding out now about violations from two years ago, tollway spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said they should have known better.
"It's always been the law that you need to pay the toll," McGinnis said. "So the individuals who were not paying knew they were in violation."
For those who forget to bring toll money, they should call the tollway the same day to arrange payment.
"This is in support of the 97 percent of drivers who do pay the tolls," McGinnis said.
The argument that the machine ate your money is hard to make for people with 50 or more violations, tollway officials and independent attorneys agree. Records show some people who don't have I-PASS repeatedly drive through I-PASS-only lanes.
But if drivers can show they have gone to work paying tolls every day for years and have only five violations, they might make a better case, defense attorney Ernie Blomquist said.
Similarly, people who have I-PASS accounts who pay regularly have gotten more leniency from hearing officers.
"We're getting a lot of calls," Blomquist said. "It's the crime du jour."
But Blomquist tells callers that in most cases it's not worth hiring an attorney to fight the fees. One tactic, he says, is to bring in photos of your license plate to compare to the tollway's photos of the license plate because you may be able to show someone else was blowing off the toll.
Don't try arguing that someone else - a child or ex-spouse - was using your car. Owners are considered responsible for the use of their vehicles.
Some lawyers object to the lack of timely notification for violations from more than two years ago.
Under the legal doctrine of "laches," a party must assert its claim in a reasonable time, similar to a statute of limitations in criminal cases.
"You only have 18 months to file DUI charges, but you can go two years back for a 50-cent toll?" defense attorney Don Ramsell asked.
He also objected that the fines - $20 at first, then $70 if the violation goes unpaid - were out of proportion to the offense of 25 cents to 75 cents.
But he, too, advised against hiring an attorney.
"Nobody's sympatheic," he said. "You walk into these hearings and the presumption is you're guilty already, and the ball is in your corner to prove otherwise. You're better off bringing a checkbook than a lawyer."
Starting Monday, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority will hold mass hearings, like traffic court, instead of one-on-one hearings. It will also expand hearings to five days a week from three days a week.
That should move through more than 1,000 hearings a week and cut down on the backlog of contested cases, authorities said.
Fined: Lawyers say it's not worth it to hire them