A man in Tampa, Fla., has uncovered what he calls an illegal scheme by the state’s turnpike authority to detain motorists who pay tolls with $20, $50 or $100 bills until they disclose personal information recorded by the state.
Joel Chandler first became aware of the practice when he paid a $1 toll with a $100 bill, and the toll taker refused to let his car pass until he filled out a personal information form. He then started testing the system, taping his encounters as he went through toll booths.
“This is a serious, serious criminal offense,” Chandler told Tampa’s WTSP-TV, “to illegally detain somebody without legal authority.”
Chandler’s brother joined the video investigation and not only found the practice widespread, but also found one toll worker who threatened to call the Florida Highway Patrol if he did not surrender the information.
When Chandler complained about the detentions, however, he says state officials denied the practice and engaged in “a very concerted effort to cover it up.”
A news report from WTSP-TV, which includes Chandler’s video, can be seen below:
The news station’s investigation discovered that while an official with the Florida Department of Transportation told Chandler there wasn’t “sufficient information” to investigate his complaints, that same day there were a flurry of e-mails within the department calling for the program to be “immediately” shut down, others suggesting it be temporarily suspended and still another discussing who should call Chandler and what to say.
Even further investigation revealed both records of the detentions and a possible reason for the cover-up.
“In 87 percent of the times where they bothered to write down what they thought was suspicious about the motorist, it was a racial description,” Chandler told the station, “young black male, young black male, young Hispanic male.”
Chandler concluded, “There was a lot of racial profiling going on.”
WTSP reports the Florida DOT has refused to comment, but the internal e-mails justify the program as a way of enforcing counterfeiting laws.
Chandler also discovered, however, that the DOT failed to refer any of the 885 times it claims to have received counterfeit money to law enforcement agencies.
Chandler now says he intends to file a class action suit against the state, based on an estimated 5 million toll-booth detentions, a lawsuit that could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“So it’s been crime upon crime upon crime upon crime, lie upon lie upon lie,” he told the TV station. “What it comes down to is the Department of Transportation has been engaged in what I think will obviously be seen by the courts as the largest criminal conspiracy in the history of the state.”
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