SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The Bay Area's FasTrak is trying to keep secret how it enforces toll-taking, penalties, and disputes by ticketed motorists - saying if the public knew how the system works, motorists would try to "game the system" and evade tolls.
The Bay Area Toll Authority and the Golden Gate Bridge District will ask a judge on Tuesday to seal the courtroom during a trial this week on a class-action lawsuit claiming the tolling agencies unfairly charged tens of thousands of motorists with toll evasion fines. The suit seeks a refund of potentially millions of dollars in penalties over the past six years.
"The tolling agencies are supposed to collect a toll. They're not supposed to be in the business of collecting penalties,'' attorney Adam Gutride, who brought the suit six years ago.
The suit began after the Golden Gate Bridge switched to all-electronic toll taking in 2013. Motorists without FasTrak were supposed to receive invoices for their tolls but the suit says thousands never got them - mostly due to address mistakes.
And Gutride says when invoices were returned to FasTrak as "undeliverable,'' FasTrak simply shredded them. And penalty notices were sent to the same incorrect address.
A quarter-million motorists were hit with penalties the year after the switch to electronic tolling - five times the normal rate. Gutride alleges the policy originally was to deny all disputes.
"The policy was that if the mail went out and came back as undeliverable as addressed, they shredded the mail and imposed a penalty," Gutride said.
Though the suit stems from the Golden Gate Bridge tolling disputes, the FasTrak policies on assessing fines and hearing disputes affect all Bay Area bridges and toll roads. The agencies say they have now changed their policies on when they assess penalties and how they mail out evasion notices or invoices to ensure they get to the right person.
However, they are keeping all of that a secret from the public. A judge has already sealed documents that contain public agency information. Now the tolling authorities want to ban the public from the courtroom during the trial set to begin this week, claiming FasTrak has been unfairly penalizing motorists.
Scores of those motorists have come to 7 On Your Side for help after FasTrak mistakenly blamed them for toll evasion, and would not hear their dispute or resolve mistakes.
"It wasn't my license plate, it wasn't my car,'' said David Mascorro of Castro Valley, who was charged for toll evasion for a car he never owned.
The same thing happened to George Perrasso of Pleasant Hill. "I called FasTrak and told them I don't own this vehicle and they said, oh yes you do," Perrasso said. "FasTrak wouldn't listen. I would have been better off talking to a robot."
7 On Your Side found out an incorrect VIN number made it appear to FasTrak that Perrasso was the owner. FasTrak would not tell 7 On Your Side why it couldn't correct the mistake.
The current suit seeks penalties assessed on the Golden Gate Bridge for a variety of mishaps that prevented folks from paying their tolls. Among them was Michael Saliani of Santa Rosa, who moved after he registered his car. His invoices were going to an undeliverable address, even though he had entered a change of address with the post office.
Saliani tried to dispute penalties that racked up quickly to $1,900. FasTrak would not review his case until he paid the $1,900.
"I didn't get sent one notice, ever," Saliani said. "They rejected the appeal and informed me that I owe $1,900 more in fees and I was like, 'What is going on?'"
The bridge district and toll authority would not agree to an on-camera interview. But in court documents, the agencies call the policies "inside information." They say revealing it to the public would be "enabling them to game the system" and "avoid paying correctly assessed tolls and violation penalties."
Gutride says the secrecy reflects FasTrak's general outlook that motorists are inclined to cheat or make excuses for violations.
"There was a time period where their policy was to deny all disputes. I think it's troubling that the tolling agencies have this view of California motorists, that motorists are out to get them, as opposed to having the view that motorists are constituents and that what we should be doing is assuming the best intentions."
7 On Your Side will be in the San Francisco Superior Courtroom on Dec. 17 to object to closing the courtroom to the public, when the public's business is at stake.
Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.