For Whom the Bridge Tolls…the fiction of appealing a fine in the new Washington state Toll Courts?

Imagine receiving a penalty notice for unpaid toll bridge fees totaling hundreds of dollars. Then imagine disputing those fees in one of two new toll courts in Washington state, only to discover that the likelihood of fine dismissal is practically nil. Since the toll courts opened their doors in May 2012, 75% of drivers who attempted to challenge their fines have lost. Doesn’t that figure imply some fundamental flaw in the toll court system?

In a word, no. The new Washington toll courts have granted their administrative judges very limited discretion in reviewing appeals. The only judicial options available to a toll court judge are to dismiss the charges or require payment at the hearing. The judge can dismiss a toll charge only upon a finding that it was imposed incorrectly. To meet that standard, the registered vehicle owner must prove that the vehicle was sold, stolen, transferred, leased, or rented before the toll incurred, or that the license plate was stolen. Absent those criteria, the vehicle owner will be held liable, regardless of whether that person was driving or received a toll bill. Further, payment of the original toll fee will not satisfy the penalty for the violation, and the judge cannot reduce the total amount owed. And that total amount may be daunting: for each unpaid toll crossing, the fine is $40, plus any additional fees the court might assess.

Let’s return to our above scenario. You are a Washington state resident or visitor who traveled across the state Route 520 bridge since December 2012, or eastbound from Gig Harbor to Tacoma across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Whether or not aware of the electronic tolling system in place, each crossing incurred a set fee, depending upon the time of travel and the size of your vehicle. Both locations clearly flag a driver’s attention to the impending toll charge; the Narrows Bridge  still offers a toll booth collection point. Once crossed in travel, both locations can bill from license plate tracking or draw from a prepaid-debit Good to Go account established with the Washington Department of Transportation (WDOT). So how can these fees increase exponentially or catch drivers off guard?

First, any crossing electronically triggers the toll fee. Unless paid online or drawn from an existing Good to Go  prepaid account, a bill will automatically be mailed to the registered owner of the vehicle at the address currently filed with the state Department of Licensing. If the bill is not received in the mail 14 days after the crossing, it is incumbent on the driver and/or vehicle owner to contact WDOT. If payment is not received within 15 days of the crossing, a second bill will be sent, with an added $5 reprocessing fee. Payment can be made online, by phone, by mail, or in person. If payment is not received within 80 days of the date traveled, the toll becomes a violation, and a civil penalty of $40 will be assessed for each unpaid crossing. After receiving notice of a civil penalty, the registered vehicle owner has 20 days to pay, send in a written dispute, or schedule an in person hearing. If you fail to respond or pay, your debt will be assigned to a collections agency and a hold will be placed on your vehicle registration.  Those are seemingly draconian consequences for nonpayment of a toll fine that averages $4 per transaction!

Why such a punitive collection system? According to the transportation experts and WDOT, those penalties are actually considered within  the  ” low to mid-range” spectrum of assessment fees when compared with other jurisdictions across the county.  WDOT also asserts that such fines discourage unpaid crossings as well as contribute to the funding of a new state Route 520 replacement bridge planned. The toll court administrative costs are also offset by the fines and penalties collected; WDOT claims a savings of $6 million annually in reimbursement costs formerly paid to local municipal and traffic courts to process these citations. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for the old traffic court days; there you could offer your best explanation, excuse, or sob story to a hopefully sympathetic judge and evoke a suspended or reduced fine at your hearing. In the new toll courts, the administrative judges cannot legally be swayed by claims of nondelivery, misplacement, or even possible consumption of the mail by the family pet.  Further, even  if you have a prepaid Good to Go account, you can still be assessed civil penalties  if the account was inactive or had insufficient funds at the time of the toll crossing transactions. So that is how those bridge toll fines escalate; a few missed $5 payments can become $500 in penalties if too many citations go unheeded.

 To find information about Washington toll courts and other specialty courts throughout the U.S., search and select your state of interest, then scan the court types available in that jurisdiction.

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