Motorists should not have their constitutional rights violated to use one of the state's toll roads, which is what the Florida Department of Transportation appears to have done in harassing perhaps 260,000 drivers in a fumbling attempt to detect counterfeit currency. The suspended program cost more than the illegal tender confiscated, and now the department could find itself in an even deeper financial hole as the subject of a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of detaining motorists at toll plazas and forcing them to answer personal questions.
For 15 months before the program was suspended in July 2010 following a complaint by Joel Chandler of Tampa, motorists attempting to pay a toll with a $50 or $100 bill were subjected to an absurd interrogation by tollbooth workers who demanded to know the driver's name, date of birth, gender, home address, age and race. That sounds like an egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protections against unfounded searches and seizures.
In short order, the Barney Fife-like sleuthing effort to detect counterfeit bills was extended to people trying to pay road tolls with $20 and $5 bills. Soon both the costs to the state and the anger among motorists being illegally detained and questioned at toll plazas went on the rise. What was more bogus? The mere $16,000 (less than a $1,000 a month) captured in phony money? Or the $32,000 spent to print the "Bill Detection Report" forms?
It was folly and potentially dangerous to expect untrained and ill-equipped tollbooth workers to become de facto junior U.S. Secret Service agents on the front lines of battling counterfeit currency. Now Chandler has filed his federal lawsuit and is seeking to have it approved as a class action. It appears his claim could be supported by an admission on the part of the Department of Transportation's own lawyers that the highly flawed program improperly detained motorists, suggesting perhaps the road to lawsuit hell had some red flags along the way.