A 34-year-old single mother was tossed in jail for 27 hours last month for failing to appear in court for an unpaid North Texas Tollway Authority bill.
Carole Denise Butler of McKinney estimates the 5-year-old bill at $11.
She told The Watchdog that she was never notified of any unpaid bills or court appearances, though, she says, her address is correctly listed with the state and the NTTA, where she keeps a current TollTag account.
She remembered hearing about one notice that went to her now-deceased grandfather in Austin in 2006. But she never saw it, and she bought a car from him in 2003 and properly changed her address, she says.
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It's not an isolated incident. "There've been a few" motorists tossed into his county's jail for charges that began as unpaid toll fines, a spokesman for the Collin County Sheriff's Department tells The Watchdog.
The Watchdog has written about how tolls costing a few dollars can escalate into $500 fines with penalties and fees. Some motorists say they never received bills or warning letters. The threat of arrest was always imminent, but this is the first case I could find of an arrest taking place.
The NTTA has acknowledged that it has had problems with obtaining accurate addresses. Officials said last year that they had improved their use of databases to get more-accurate information.
The Watchdog contacted Victor Vandergriff, new chairman of the authority and the first from Tarrant County, to ask about Butler. "This is news and a little bit of a surprise ... and a little disturbing," he said.
"I would be concerned about anybody who has spent 27 hours in detention. I recognize that oftentimes when the tolls aren't paid that there may be misinformation. It may be a bad address."
Vandergriff, who has promised to reform the toll-collection system, said: "I want to address that. I certainly didn't expect us to be doing that."
NTTA spokeswoman Susan Slupecki says records show that Butler was sent three notices in 2005 and that the mail was never returned to sender. Another notice was sent to a different address supplied by the Transportation Department, and it wasn't returned either.
The Department of Public Safety issued a citation in 2006, and a court notice was issued after that. Butler says she never knew.
The NTTA says it does not track how many motorists are jailed for failing to appear in court, which is the technical cause for an arrest warrant. "We do not have access to county databases," Slupecki says.
The DPS sent justice of the peace courts 5,295 NTTA citations last year and has sent 6,649 this year.
For the past year, I've recommended that NTTA complaints go to Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who has vowed to tame the authority during the 2011 legislative session.
"Jailing someone for unpaid tolls -- especially if the NTTA doesn't know whether they received the invoices -- is too harsh," Nelson said last week of Butler's case. "I am looking into changes that may be needed in how toll road agencies assess penalties."
Butler was arrested early Sept. 4. She had left an Allen bar with a female co-worker. The co-worker collapsed in the parking lot. Police arrived and asked Butler to drive the woman home. Butler agreed.
But an Allen police officer checking the validity of Butler's driver's license before she went found an outstanding misdemeanor warrant. She arrested Butler and arrested the co-worker on suspicion of public intoxication.
Butler spent 12 hours at the Allen Jail. She said she could not make phone calls because the phones allow only collect calls, and her emergency contacts use only cellphones that don't accept those calls. She said she never learned why she was arrested.
Then Butler, an insurance processor, was transferred to the Collin County Detention Center in McKinney, where she spent 15 hours.
"They lock you up and treat you like an animal," she said. "If they would have sent me a notice saying I had a citation, I would have paid it," said Butler, daughter of a retired state trooper.
The DPS provides the NTTA with information on citations and warrants. In this case, the Collin County Sheriff's Department held the warrant. A spokesman for Allen police says officers usually don't know what the violation is when they arrest someone on a misdemeanor warrant.
Butler eventually settled with the NTTA. Her total bill started at $469 with penalties and fees. Collin County Justice of the Peace Mike Yarbrough cut that down to $242 with credit for time served in jail. She also paid the authority $112 in fees, including the original $11 toll bill for a car she sold three years ago.
When I contacted the NTTA about Butler, I received a written report with information about "Ms. Baker."
Since the problem here is about accurate addresses, names seem a problem, too. I'm just sayin'.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830