Federal appeals court finds New York City toll fines are not unconstitutionally excessive

February 12, 2024

Tyson Fisher


A federal appeals court has ruled that “excessive” toll violation fees in New York City are not unconstitutional in a class-action lawsuit filed by a group of motorists.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently affirmed a New York district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Several motorists had sued the agency after receiving toll fines they deemed excessive and unconstitutional.

At the heart of the complaint is the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority’s cashless tolling system. In 2016 and 2017, the agency began eliminating toll booths in favor of the automated system. Tolls are collected through E-ZPass transponders. For those without E-ZPass, cameras capture the license plate and motorists are sent a bill at their address registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

When a motorist fails to pay a toll, they are fined $50 or $100. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority has the option to reduce or even dismiss fees.

According to the lawsuit, some motorists were fined more than 10 times the amount of the original toll. Over a one-year period, one motorist accrued 41 toll violations resulting in $4,000 in fees. The tolls without the fees were only $381.50. Another motorist was charged $43,550 in fees for $3,810 in unpaid tolls after receiving 439 violations.

In the first case, the bills and violation notices were sent to an address where the motorist no longer lives. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority reduced her payment to $720 and dismissed the remaining violations. In the case involving more than $40,000 in fees, a faulty E-ZPass transponder was at play, and the vehicle was impounded. The payment was reduced to $8,170.

The lawsuit claims the toll fees violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits “excessive fines.”

When determining whether or not fees were excessive, the Second Circuit applied what are called the Bajakajian factors:

  1. The essence of the crime of the defendant and its relation to other criminal activity
  2. Whether the defendant fits into the class of persons for whom the statute was principally designed
  3. The maximum sentence and fine that could have been imposed
  4. The nature of the harm caused by the defendant’s conduct

Regarding the first factor, the Second Circuit pointed out that the toll fines are “roughly equivalent” to other traffic violations in the state. Fines of $50 frequently are handed out for parking violations, and fines of $100 are charged in cities with a population of more than 1 million. Failure to comply with a traffic signal also results in a $50 fine, as do violations related to bus lane restrictions.

Nationwide, toll violation fees are also similar. Illinois charges $20 per violation and another $50 if the fine is not paid within 30 days. Texas charges up to $250 per toll violation.

Addressing the third factor, the appeals court calculated that one of the plaintiffs paid an average of $18.61 per violation, another paid $17.56 and the third named plaintiff paid an average of $50 per violation. The court determined the averages by comparing the reduced payment to the original fees and violations assessed.

Lastly, plaintiffs argued that although failure to pay tolls causes the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority some financial harm, the agency’s “ability to recoup more through tolls and fees than it lost due to missed tolls means that the harm it suffered was minimal or nonexistent.” However, the Second Circuit ruled that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority’s harm is minimized “precisely because of the fines.”

Plaintiffs also argued that the fines were “grossly disproportional” because they “do not serve a safety purpose” and “are repeatedly assessed against the same unsuspecting vehicle owners.”

During litigation in the district court, plaintiffs had conceded that the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority implemented cashless tolling in part to “reduce traffic, increase safety, provide environmental benefits and reduce costs.”

“It goes almost without saying that actually collecting tolls is the core of cashless tolling,” the Second Circuit opined. “And it would be difficult for (the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority) to successfully collect tolls if it were unable to deter would-be toll violators through fines. The fines assessed in this case thus help (the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority) prevent the traffic, safety, environmental and fiscal harms that it would suffer if its Cashless Tolling system were ineffective.” LL

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