Court: Harris County May Collect Road Tolls Against Ex-Owners of Vehicles

August 8th, 2019 by Tad Nelson in Traffic Offenses

If you fail to pay a required toll on a county road, you commit a misdemeanor traffic violation punishable by a $100 fine. And in fact, under Section 284.0701 of the Texas Transportation Code, the owner of a vehicle can be cited for this offense if they fail to pay a previously imposed fine, even if they were not driving at the time.

Judge Questions Constitutionality, Fairness of Statute

To go a step further, the Texas 14th District Court of Appeals here in Houston recently held the former owner of a car can be held liable under Section 284.0701 even after they sold their vehicle to someone else. This bizarre case, Harris County v. Ramirez, involves two vehicles that previously belonged to the defendant. Harris County sued the defendant for unpaid tolls on both vehicles.

At trial, the defendant presented evidence–which the County did not contest–that showed she actually sold both vehicles in question before the unpaid tolls were incurred. However, the Department of Motor Vehicles continued to list her as the registered owner. As it turned out, the defendant was unaware of the need to file change-of-ownership paperwork with the DMV.

The trial court determined the county should “take nothing” from its lawsuit and entered judgment for the defendant. The 14th District reversed the trial judge, however, explaining the County “established conclusively” that the defendant was “liable for the tolls and associated charges.” The appeals court noted there was no doubt the tolls were incurred against two vehicles bearing the license plates in question, i.e., the vehicles registered to the defendant. Harris County was therefore entitled to a judgment of $2,638 plus post-judgment interest.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Megan Hassan expressed her discomfort with how the language of Section 284.0701 “seemingly creates a heretofore unknown category of vicarious strict liability to sellers in specific arms-length business transactions despite the absence of wrongdoing.” In other words, Justice Hassan questioned whether Section 284.0701 was unconstitutional. But since neither party addressed that issue–indeed, the defendant represented herself without an attorney–Justice Hassan acknowledged it was inappropriate for the Court to address the question on its own initiative.

But she nevertheless suggested the statute was not “rational” as written, and that courts should be permitted to apply a “balancing test” to determine “whether it should hold people like [the defendant] strictly and vicariously liable for the conduct of an unrelated third-party despite the absence of personal wrongdoing and control.”

Contact a Houston Traffic Violations Defense Lawyer Today

While the Texas legislature (or another appellate court) may take up this issue in the future, for now the 14th District’s ruling should put all Houston-area vehicle sellers on notice–make sure you file the necessary paperwork with the DMV to change legal registration of ownership. Otherwise, you can be held liable for the new owner’s failure to pay tolls. If you need additional advice on this or any other traffic violations issue from an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today. Call (281) 280-0100

 

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