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That'll Be $379,000: Pair Sue Over Racked-Up O.C. Toll Road Bills

September 28, 2006|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles couple facing about $379,000 in toll road fees and penalties have filed a lawsuit against an Orange County transportation agency, alleging that it violated their constitutional rights by not allowing them to contest the debt.

Juan and Josephine Trevino, the former owners of a San Pedro termite extermination business who are now separated, racked up 725 violations from November 2004 to June, the largest such record since the Orange County Transportation Authority took over the 91 Express Lanes in 2003, OCTA officials said Wednesday. This is also the first time the agency has been sued over how its fees are assessed, they said.

The couple allege in the lawsuit, filed this month in Orange County Superior Court, that OCTA did not provide hearings for them to contest the penalties. They also allege that there are no limits to the penalties, which can "climb to astronomical amounts," only maximizing the agency's revenue.

"The civil penalties are disproportionate to the amount of the tolls and there is no reasonable relationship between the harm of the violation and the cumulative penalties," their attorney, Anat Levy, wrote. She did not return phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.

The Trevinos also could not be reached for comment but said in the lawsuit that they and 15 employees used five vehicles to zip through Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties to perform their exterminations. The business took a nosedive, however, making it impossible for them to pay their bills, including the toll fees, which are automatically deducted against credit cards. They said they laid off two-thirds of their employees, and the financial burden eventually led to their separation.

Josephine Trevino said that when she called OCTA in June to pay what she thought was a "few thousand dollars" in fees, she was shocked to learn that there was also $377,000 in penalties.

According to the lawsuit, the couple had not been notified of the fines and had no opportunity to contest them. OCTA spokesman Michael Litschi said many attempts were made to notify the couple. The agency sent them nearly 1,600 notices, and collection agencies called them numerous times, he said.

"Usually, when the penalties get this high," he said, "it's because the customer makes no attempt to respond to the notices we send to them. It's not easy to rack up this much. They just made no effort to contact us."

There is a customer service number on the notices, allowing violators to contest their fines, Litschi said. There is also an attachment that includes an affidavit and a request for administrative investigation.

With more than 30,000 drivers on the toll road daily, he said, about 2.7% of them are violators, but most pay after receiving their first two notices. Penalties assessed for not paying tolls within a given year are $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for each subsequent violation. In 2003, an Orange County judge ordered 11 violators to pay about $25,000 each. The drivers had used the toll roads 40 to 55 times without paying.

"For the first-time violators, we really don't punish you much when you use the road," Litschi said. "But when you ignore thousands of notices and use the road more than 700 times, that's a little excessive."

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