HOUSTON – Expired credit cards have thousands of Houstonians stuck with big bills after being caught unexpectedly in the cross hairs of the Harris County Toll Road Authority.
Consumer expert Amy Davis discovered many drivers are remanded to a little-known court where, some say, the deck is stacked against them.
"They're trying to hide something," attorney Cory Roth said. "They're trying to hide the amount of money they collect every year. They're trying to hide the amount of people that get sued every year."
Tucked upstairs on the third floor of a building on Prairie in downtown Houston is where thousands of toll violators are summoned to appear. About 750 drivers are sued every week -- totaling about 39,000 each year.
"They said that I would get a warrant if I didn't show up," said Deborah Bostwick, who told Davis she was in the hospital dying of cancer when the Harris County Toll Road Authority claims she ran through toll booths without paying.
"You can actually go to jail," said Antoinette Tolson, repeating what a clerk in the court told her.
KPRC Channel 2 News wanted to take you inside, but the judge wouldn't allow our camera in the courtroom.
"We're trying to get a copy of the docket here today, of everyone who's scheduled to appear here for cases," Davis told a Harris County Toll Road employee at the court.
"OK. I don't have a comment on that right now," he said as he quickly ducked inside the court.
HCTRA maintains the Texas Motor Vehicle Records Disclosure Act prohibits it from releasing the names and case information of anyone in the court.
"I think it's nonsense," Roth said. "Courtrooms are public places. It is very clear. A courtroom is a public place."
Roth takes issue with the court for several reasons. State law allows Harris County to make its own rules and hire a private law firm to do the dirty work of collections and prosecutions of drivers accused of running tolls. The law firm Harris County commissioners approved is Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson. The firm has donated $80,000 to commissioners since getting the contract.
Linebarger is a private debt collector. Since it's collecting on behalf of a government agency, it has its own sort of E-ZPass. None of the consumer protection laws apply, like the requirement to provide proof you actually owe a debt. There is no statute of limitations, meaning they can come after you years later.
"My first questions was: Why haven't I been alerted about this?" Steven Devadanam told Davis.
Devadanam's unpaid tolls were from 2015. Even though he has an EZ Tag and receives statements from the Harris County Toll Road Authority every month, showing he's got plenty of money in his account, when he called to add a rental car to his account in February, a customer service agent gave him the bad news.
"'Did you know that you have a $762 balance?' Devadanam said the woman asked him. "And I said, 'Uh, no. I wasn't aware of that. I didn't drive to Canada.'"
Devadanamt added a Toyota Prius to his account in the summer of 2015.
The Toll Road Authority issued him an EZ plate so he could drive on the toll road until his EZ Tag arrived by mail. The HCTRA admits it took it 17 days to mail the tag. By the time it arrived, Devadanam's EZ plate had expired. He racked up $45.50 in unpaid tolls that turned into $724, 16 times what he originally owed.
"I'm not going pay for a balance that I didn't generate or create," Devadanam said.
"How much effort does the Toll Road Authority make to actually notify people?" Davis asked Gary Trietsch, executive director of the HCTRA.
"We are bound by state law that all we can do is send it to the address that's on their license plate information," Trietsch replied.
The Texas Transportation Code said the authority must send unpaid toll notices to the address of the vehicle's registered owner.
The HCTRA said it sent nine notices before it sent Devadanam's account to collections. Seven of those were returned. But there is nothing stopping Harris County from contacting customers like Devadanam at their email address on file.
"By Harris County not making an effort to notify consumers, Linebarger gets more money," Davis told Trietsch.
"Linebarger gets more money, but, uh, you know, No. 1: We have a million and a half transactions a day. There are going to be errors," he said.
They seem to be errors that work in Linebarger's favor. In the last three years, Linebarger has collected $25.2 million for the Harris County Toll Road Authority. It collected $28.6 million for itself from all the extra fees it charged drivers.
"It's not fair. It's just not fair," Roth said.
A lot of EZ Tag customers get slapped with extra fees when credit cards expire or you get a new one. Many assume when you link your new credit card to your account, the Toll Road Authority will simply charge it for the unpaid tolls. That does not happen. You have to remember to pay those separately.
Harris County Commissioners appoint three administrative hearing officers to the downtown toll violators court. The court convenes three times a week with 250 drivers scheduled on each docket. One thing that makes the toll court different is the hearing officers rarely even take the bench.
Antoinette Tolson was expecting a hearing when she showed up to dispute her a $529 bill she received from Linebarger; but she said the prosecutor from the law firm wasn't hearing any of it.
"Basically it's, you have to pay it," Tolson told Davis.
The prosecutor tells drivers the only way to avoid the fees is to show an approved bill of sale showing you sold your vehicle or a police report showing it was stolen. Without those, they you give you three options:
1- Set up a payment plan.
2- Talk with a Linebarger prosecutor.
3- Ask for a judge to hear your case.
If you lose, the judge or hearing officer could tack on a $500 penalty and an extra $110 in court costs.
"That's a threat that would make people feel like 'Well, maybe I shouldn't tell my story cause I'm going to get penalized for it,'" Davis explained to HCTRA's executive director Gary Trietsch.
"Well, everybody's got to make a choice," he replied.
HCTRA says state law prohibits the court from releasing the names of anyone it sues in toll road court. All they would give us is the zip code of each person summoned to court. It showed 750 cases each week.
"Who's overseeing this court to make sure people are getting a fair trial?" Davis asked Trietsch.
"Well, it's the judges that are administering," he answered.
"So there's nobody overseeing the administrative judges?" Davis came back again.
"Not that I know of," said Trietsch.
The judges or hearing officers are paid $500 per docket by Harris County, about $20,000 a year each.
"This is a money maker for the county," said Roth.
Everyone is making money except consumers whose unpaid tolls are increased sometimes more than 20 times what they owed in unpaid tolls.
"It's not fair. It's a scam. It's a money grab. And it's a lot of vulnerable people who are being hit the hardest," said Roth.
Linebarger spokesman Joe Householder sent us the following statement:
"There are two certain ways to avoid paying a fine for a toll violation. You can pay your tolls as they are incurred, or you can avoid driving on the toll roads, which are clearly marked as such. One should not lose site of the fact that driving on a toll road and not paying your tolls is a violation of law -- a Class C misdemeanor. The law allows large counties like Harris to choose how it prefers to enforce toll violations. Harris County opted for a civil administrative process, as opposed to a criminal process."
Here is how your missed toll can easily turn into hundreds of dollars:
- When you run three tolls that cost $1.75 each ($5.25 total) within 365 days, the HCTRA will send you the first invoice after the third violation, but will add $11 to each violation ($10 per violation as administration fee approved by Commissioner’s Court plus $1 per violation to the county attorney per state statute). That total is now $38.25.
- The HCTRA will try to collect for 45 days before it sends the debt to Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson. At that time, the county adds $14 per violation, adding up to $80.25
- Linebarger attempts to collect for 60 days. Then it can add a $50.00 fee when a hearing is scheduled. The total is now $130.25.
If you go to the hearing and ask the administrative judge to hear your case but are unsuccessful, the judge can charge you $500, plus you’ll pay $110 in court costs, bringing your total to