Get accused of running a Harris County Toll, and Terri Hall says watch out..
"The deck is stacked against the citizen,” Hall said.
She's a grassroots community organizer who says when it comes to fighting violations from HCTRA, the Harris County Toll Road Authority: "You're guilty until you prove yourself innocent."
Case in point—Lisa Bowen.
"They got the wrong name, the wrong tag number and the wrong car,” Bowen said.
That's right. The violation notice from HCTRA is one digit off from Bowen's actual license plate. While she can try to dispute it over the phone, Bowen and others only get their day in court after the toll road authority sends their violation to a collections firm, Linebarger Goggan Blair and Sampson. And once you get to court, the same firm after your money also is the law firm representing Harris County against you.
"Everything is backwards about the way the system works,” Hall said.
"It's kind of like the fox in the henhouse," said motorist Gabe Mosqueda.
Mosqueda said with that kind of set-up, he doesn't stand a fighting chance. The longtime toll user claims HCTRA sent at least some of his violation notices to a wrong address. The amount owed shot up: $231 dollars in unpaid tolls and $600 dollars in fees.
And the judge hearing his case is paid by the Toll Road Authority.
“It's just a huge conflict of interest there, it doesn't make any sense," Mosqueda said.
Turns out, HCTRA almost always wins and the motorist loses. The I-Team checked three years of toll hearing records, and the Toll Road Authority prevailed 95 percent of the time.
So we asked HCTRA Spokesman Adam Collett:
I-Team: "Do you see anything wrong with the collections firm also fighting the case for the county?”
Collett: “I'm not in a position to give an opinion on that.”
I-Team: “Does the Toll road Authority believe that the hearing process is even, level?”
Collett: “The overall system is…”
I-Team: “That's not the question, the hearing process, customers say it’s one-sided.”
Collett: “Well I'm sorry, again, I just don't have an opinion for you on that.”
And the Linebarger law and collections firm declined our on camera interview request, but sent the following statement:
“It is entirely appropriate to levy reasonable fees against individuals who do not pay tolls for the use of Harris County toll roads. The vast majority of toll road users pay their tolls and it is unfair to ask them to subsidize those who fail to abide by the law. As legal counsel for the Harris County Toll Road authority, it is our job to advocate on behalf of the county in order to collect past due tolls and fees and when we do the full amount is paid to the toll road authority. The law firm collects a fee for its services that does not reduce the amount that we recover for the taxpayers of Harris County. The fact that the vast majority of those fines are upheld when brought before an administrative law judge, coupled with the fact that the majority of those appealed to the county-courts-at law are also upheld, is evidence that the system is fair and effective.”
But don't tell that to watchdog Terri Hall.
"Oh no, no, no, wait a minute, stop,” Hall said. "You don't have a prayer of having a true impartial case.”
After the I-Team made the Toll Authority aware of Lisa Bowen’s case, HCTRA says it cleared her of the violations that she had been accused of and deleted the resulting toll and fees she supposedly owed. In the case of Gabe Mosqueda, HCTRA waived more than $1500 in fees on his two vehicles and settled his case.