'Unlawful Seizure' Appeal is All About the Benjamins

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Chalk this one up to One Percenter problems.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) operates the Florida Turnpike system, and collects tolls from vehicles using the turnpike. Motorists sometimes pay the small tolls charged with $50 or $100 bills. To discourage payments with counterfeit bills, FDOT implemented a policy that required toll collectors to record a Grant-or-Benjamin-paying vehicle's make, model, color, tag number and state of issuance in a Bill Detection Report.

Just so we're clear, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals says that's not a civil rights violation.

Joel, Deborah, and Robert Chandler sued the FDOT Secretary and related officials for injunctive relief and damages under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They claimed that the toll collectors "engaged in a practice of detaining motorists and their passengers ... until such motorists provided certain personal information in exchange for their release."

The defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit. This week, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the allegations didn't assert a constitutional violation, and the officials are entitled to qualified immunity in the matter.

In Florida, the right to use a highway is not absolute; it's subject to regulation. The operator of a toll road has the right to set reasonable terms and conditions for its use, and every vehicle may be required to stop to pay a toll.

The Chandlers argued that the delay in their "release" while a toll booth operator completes a Bill Detection Report is a "detention" and, therefore, a Fourth Amendment "seizure."

Not so, said the Eleventh Circuit.

Here, the Chandlers' alleged "detention" was based on their own decisions. They chose to enter the turnpike. They consented to pay the toll. They chose to pay the toll with a large-denomination bill. They implicitly consented to the delay caused by paying with a $50 or a $100.

The appellate court concluded that the Chandlers could not "transform what is basically FDOT's unremarkable condition for acceptance of a toll payment by a large-denomination bill into a constitutional violation by conclusorily labeling it "unlawful" and referring to it as a "seizure." In short, the Chandlers didn't plead facts under which there is "more than a sheer possibility that [the defendants] acted unlawfully."

So, do you ever pay toll collectors with baller-bills? Is the One Percenter toll booth detention really a problem?

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