Tollbooth getting a little too personal

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist
March 29, 2011

Maybe like me, you tend to mistrust most things governmental.

Maybe you have even drawn the derision of friends for, say, refusing to buy a SunPass. Yes, a SunPass sails you through Florida tollbooths without you having to stop and dig for quarters. But it also gives my government a lot of personal information about me, plus a way to watch my whereabouts were my government so inclined.

So okay, my trips to Costco are not all that interesting. And around me, people say: What's the big deal? Why so paranoid? I start to wonder: Am I on my way to becoming one of those lost souls wandering the streets in a tinfoil hat, muttering about radio waves and the IRS, and not especially popular at parties?

The government is here to help, right?

This week, the Times' William R. Levesque reported on a state policy for dealing with drivers who showed up at tollbooths bearing bills of $20 or more. To thwart counterfeiting, toll workers were supposed to take down information about the bill bearer, including the make and model of the car.

Apparently, however, it did not stop there. According to a federal lawsuit filed by a Lakeland man, toll workers have asked for much more, including drivers' addresses, gender, phone numbers, ages and race. The bill in question could be as small as $5.

And if you refused? If you said, no thanks, don't really want to spill my personal stuff for the privilege of paying a toll? Well, you can't back out of a tollbooth. And refusing to comply could be treated as refusing to pay.

Don't ask questions. The government is here to help you.

And to keep that government from rummaging around in your sock drawer, you apparently had to come packing a crisp roll of singles.

So what were they after in gathering the low-down on motorists? Real dirt on counterfeiters? A list of potential SunPass buyers? Something more sinister?

At least 260,000 drivers were so detained, according to the suit, which also says the forms toll takers used cost twice as much as the fake bills they took in.

The government is here to operate inefficiently?

If all this doesn't make you uncomfortable, how about the cell phone video in which a toll worker is asked what law lets him request this information. The toll worker helpfully says he can call state troopers - you know, the ones with the uniforms, hats and guns - to explain.

The government is here to expound on the law? Take you to jail?

Levesque reports that the Department of Transportation suspended the program in July after a complaint from Joel Chandler, self-described public records activist and, apparently, Wrong Guy To Mess With. Chandler sued, saying the policy equals illegally detaining people and violates our rights against unwarranted search and seizures.

By now I can hear some people saying: Oh, please. Cooperate and move on. And buy a SunPass already. To which I say: Can't I have nothing to hide and a right to privacy?

And shouldn't we make sure when government intrudes, it has justification beyond: because it is the government, and because it can?

And, no. At the moment I do not own a tinfoil hat.

[iCopyright] 2011 St. Petersburg Times.

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