A respected Tarrant County justice of the peace is asking whether bill-collection procedures used by the North Texas Tollway Authority violate the state and federal constitutions.The Watchdog is all ears.As the NTTA ramps up its efforts to increase its criminal penalties for nonpayers, Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Russell Casey hopes to put up roadblocks to stop the plan.Casey says his argument with the NTTA is not about protecting scofflaws but about making sure that Texas drivers are not denied their legal rights.The Hurst-based JP's main argument: "You don't pay that $15 toll bill, and then it turns into $75? They can issue an arrest warrant. That tosses away a couple of centuries' worth of civil rights."Casey said he came "unglued" when he heard that the NTTA was going to start prosecuting nonpayment cases as criminal charges in some JP courts.The NTTA files criminal citations in Collin, Dallas and Denton Counties. The NTTA also recently referred 3,400 toll violation files to legal firms for collection and possible civil suits, NTTA spokeswoman Susan Slupecki says.The Republican JP asked for a summertime meeting with State Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington. Two NTTA officials also attended and heard Casey out.State Rep. Patrick acknowledged the summer meeting, saying in a statement to The Watchdog: "I am always reviewing legislative options for future sessions." Constitutional questions, she adds, are best left to courts.Casey is no run-of-the-mill JP. He's chairman of an important state task force appointed by the Texas Supreme Court that is rewriting the system of small claims and justice court proceedings. His committee's report is now in the hands of the high court. A new system is scheduled to go into place next year.Casey isn't a lawyer, and he says that's why the high court probably appointed him. He's supposed to bring a nonlawyer's viewpoint to the new JP system by making it easier for parties in a lawsuit to defend themselves because of less reliance on legal language and rules.Casey is also a former chairman of the Texas State Advisory Board to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which discusses civil-rights issues.Questioning seizuresCasey says he believes it's a civil-rights violation to seize a car off a toll road for unpaid toll bills.The NTTA board recently approved a pilot program to ban vehicles of repeat violators with 100 or more violations. Before the ban, there would be a hearing in a newly created NTTA quasi-court, where witnesses can provide testimony and evidence is introduced. Ultimately, vehicles "may be impounded by a law enforcement authority," the NTTA states.Nine out of 10 drivers pay their tolls on time either through the mail (at up to a 40 percent higher price) or by using a TollTag on their windshield. A TollTag captures a vehicle's movements on an NTTA road and is linked to a bank account or a credit card. Trouble comes when a driver without a TollTag ignores three bills in the mail. The NTTA hands those cases over to the state Department of Public Safety.In the past, some motorists complained they never received bills in the mail or that NTTA staffers made errors. Small toll bills can escalate with ever-growing fees and penalties. A new law went into effect last year that cut the administrative fee at $25 for each unpaid toll, not to exceed $200. Previously, the authority charged $25 for every unpaid toll transaction. A single invoice contained dozens of transactions.After that, the NTTA sought alternative ways to capture lost money. The NTTA tries to shame large violators by publishing their names on a public list at ntta.org.Now the NTTA wants more power. "Vehicle registration blocks" would prevent scofflaws from renewing their annual car registration. The authority also tells me that it is working on "introducing new criminal penalties against toll violators who continue to drive on NTTA roads." What they are, the NTTA isn't exactly saying. The authority is preparing recommendations for the 2013 legislative session.Casey says the authority can't seize a car because "no lien authority has ever been granted to the NTTA."Defending the practiceThe NTTA responds that state law permits it to create a system that allows for car seizures.NTTA spokeswoman Slupecki says, "Certainly, it is reasonable for the operator of a toll road to adopt rules dealing with the small minority of users who habitually fail to pay tolls despite the multiple notices and ample time to make payment guaranteed by statute."Casey says the Texas Constitution prohibits debtor prisons, yet motorists sometimes go to jail for charges related to their toll debts.The Watchdog reported in 2010 how a 34-year-old single mother spent 27 hours in jail because she failed to pay a 5-year-old toll bill that originally cost about $11. She said she never got a notice.The NTTA says violators may be arrested and jailed, but not because of unpaid bills."They are being arrested/jailed for failing to appear in court, and not because they failed to pay a toll," Slupecki says."I disagree with that," Casey says. "If you don't pay your fine, guess where you're going. They issue an arrest warrant for you. That's imprisonment for debt.""It's all semantics," Casey adds."This is a statewide violation of civil rights on a massive scale, and unfortunately I cannot get past the 'go along, get along' attitude that seems so prominent."The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043Twitter: @davelieber
How to avoid toll problems
Get a TollTag at city hall or county office or at ntta.org.
Check your account regularly, as you would a bank account.
Make sure the address on your driver's license matches the address on your vehicle registration -- and that it's where you receive your mail.
The NTTA says it reserves the right "to accept partial payment of tolls and fees owed by repeat toll violators or enter into payment agreements with respect to unpaid tolls, fees, but shall be under no obligation to do so."
35,740 violators are listed by name and amount at ntta.org. (Search under Customer Information > Billing and Payment > Top Toll Violators.)