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10 News Investigators find SunPass problems lead to license suspension

9:18 AM, Nov 23, 2011   |    comments
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Tampa, Florida -- The whole idea behind the SunPass program was to make it easier for traffic to get through the toll booths easier -- not make it easier for the state to suspend your license. But it looks like that's exactly what is happening. 

More than two million times a day, Floridians use a SunPass and when there's a problem, it can have devastating effects for a driver.

"I could lose my license," says Tampa resident Riley Taylor. Taylor has three cars with a SunPass and any time the balance on the accounts dip below a certain level, it was supposed to be replenished. But a problem developed and Taylor received a notice the state was going to take his license.

"It was all legitimate and found out at the time I had eight toll violations against my license. I had already been found guilty and it had gone through the courts and it was a notice to me that my driving privileges had been revoked," says Taylor. 

"The problem you have with these violations is that they occur in January or February, and by the time you get the notice of violation, you can go seven or eight months," says David Haenel, Taylor's attorney.

A large part of Haenel's practice is defending SunPass violations and he has defended cases similar to Taylor's. In Taylor's instance, the state sent the toll violations to the address his vehicle had been registered to. But by the time they arrived, Taylor had sold the vehicle and moved.

"I think the bigger issue is the due diligence that is not being made to contact these drivers," says Haenel.

Since 2008, the state has suspended or revoked 3.8 million driver's licenses. That is one out of four of the 15.5 million licenses in the state.

We wanted to know how many of those revocations were for SunPass violations. The Florida Turnpike Authority, which runs the SunPass program, told us they had 16,455 documents with e-mails complaining about charges. They also informed us if we wanted the documents, it would cost us $3,468 to get them.

Unpaid SunPass violation carry points, just like a moving violation and that's how people like Taylor get into more trouble. 

"You'll be getting stopped and your license is suspended and you'll be going to jail over dollar toll tickets. It's unbelievable,"  says Taylor.

What Taylor also finds unbelievable is SunPass and the courts kept sending him violation notices to the wrong address, even though the state has his new address through his driver's license.

"They had it. I've been in there several times and know where it is. I obviously get communications from them in the mail. I don't know why somebody couldn't check. That obviously didn't happen," says Taylor.

How's this for a giant waste of time and gas: when Taylor tried to contact SunPass to explain he couldn't pay the fines because the notices were being sent to the wrong address, SunPass said he would have to talk to the State and the Division of Motor Vehicles.

Then when he contacted DMV, he was referred to County and the Court that suspended his license.

He says when he contacted the court, he was told the problem could easily be straightened out. All he to do was -- are you ready for this -- contact SunPass.

"I thought if I could get in front of a reasonable person and show them, this could be solved," says Taylor.

What bothered him even more was the state agencies weren't talking to each other.

"They are state agencies and have the ability to talk to each other and do due diligence and find these individuals," says Haenel.

It appears the state is not doing due diligence with the new program called "We bill you," that allows people using toll roads to automatically be billed via the mail, even if they don't have a SunPass.

10 News Investigators obtained one late charge sent to a St. Augustine driver on the Selmon Expressway. It was a picture of a truck. The driver doesn't own a truck and hasn't been in Tampa for more than two years.

When the driver complained, the Expressway Authority told him they guess at license plate numbers if they can't clearly read them.

That's right they guess at the number and send out a violation based on that guess.

Attorney Haenel says because that program is new, it will take a while for the problems to surface.

"I think in the next four or five months, you'll start seeing more of that. If you run the toll 'We bill you' and let's see if these people are getting billed or suspended licenses and burdening the courts," says Haenel.

But for many drivers who are losing their licenses, it appears the state is more interested in assessing fines and suspending licenses then getting in touch with SunPass violators.

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