The federal class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the $50 fee that E-ZPass charges motorists for toll violations has hit a bump in the road.

The lawsuit contends that the fee is excessive and is being used as an illegal source of revenue for the Turnpike Authority’s operating fund. New Jersey law specifies that fines for violations cannot be higher than the cost that the agency incurs for collecting the unpaid toll.

The litigation has been on hold while state judges take a crack at the arguments against the fee.

It turns out that a judge appointed by a Superior Court appellate panel to determine whether the cost of the fee is fair is siding with the Turnpike Authority.

Judge Alberto Rivas has issued a report stating that the $50 administrative fee “is neither arbitrary nor capricious; it fairly represents the cost incurred by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority in processing and collecting a toll violation.”

Is the E-ZPass lawsuit over?

In the judge’s report, he concludes that the $50 administrative fee is justified because the effort to collect unpaid tolls is expensive and involves much more than just mailing out a violation notice. He says that the Turnpike Authority, not the Turnpike Authority’s violations vendor, is doing all the work.

But the judge's conclusion seems to be at odds with what the Authority has stated in the past, meaning that the report is likely to be the basis of courtroom arguments for months to come, all while the lawsuit that could affect millions of dollars paid by toll violators remains in limbo.

Rivas states the New Jersey Turnpike Authority “begins the process of collecting an unpaid toll by first reviewing a photographic image of the license plate. The [Authority] then conducts research to identify the registered owner of the vehicle that committed a violation. If the registered owner is determined to have an E-ZPass account, the toll is simply deducted. Those steps are performed by [Authority] employees, not Conduent.”

But on the New Jersey Turnpike Authority website, in a description of what happens when a vehicle enters a toll plaza, it says “if the transponder is not read, Conduent conducts an image review to manually identify the license plate of the vehicle and double-check the accuracy of the data.”

The description goes on to say Conduent (not the Authority) will then follow up on any license plates from out of state, and a notice of the violation is sent to the offending party, and Conduent (not the Authority) will then deal with any disputes that arise.

The judge's report does not acknowledge this discrepancy.

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What's next for the E-ZPass lawsuit?

The report suggests Garden State drivers who have paid the $50 fine will not be getting the money back any time soon.

But the report is not the final word. It will be considered along with other evidence by a panel of judges, who will issue a final decision at some point. But it could be several months before that happens, according to legal observers.

Tom Feeney, a spokesman for the Turnpike Authority, and Matthew Faranda-Diedrich, a partner at Royer Cooper Cohen Braunfeld, the Philadelphia law firm heading up the class-action suit, declined to comment on this latest twist.

In the past, Faranda-Diedrich has indicated it is understandable people may be frustrated by a case that has already been dragging on for 5 years, but “we are putting our head down and doing everything we can to hopefully bring justice to the millions of motorists that we feel like have been unfairly taken advantage of.”

Our continuing coverage of the E-ZPass litigation

Been scammed by E-ZPass fines? You might get payback

Court tells Turnpike Authority to prove that E-ZPass is not a scam

Lawyer: E-ZPass fines are taxation without representation

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com.

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