In May 2009, Edgar Martinez, a 37-year-old who had just moved from Miami to California, received a letter from SunPass saying he owed $25 for a toll violation. Martinez paid the citation and closed his SunPass account, thinking that would be the last he heard from the traffic agency.
Unfortunately for his wallet, his SunPass nightmare was just beginning. A month later, he got a letter from the Florida DMV stating his license was about to be suspended. Confused, Martinez discovered that, because of an unspecified billing problem on SunPass's end, he had been cited 61 times for violations from January 26 through February 19.
Those tickets added up to $13,500 in fines. What's worse, he says, SunPass and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) kept him in the dark about the bills and then forced him to pay thousands for their mistake. "It's not fair I have to pay that much money for an error they made," Martinez says.
Chad Huff, a spokesman for Florida's Turnpike, says his agency is "extremely proactive" in alerting people about toll violations but couldn't speak specifically to Martinez's case. Calls seeking comment from MDX were not returned.
When Martinez flew back to Miami in July 2009 to deal with the problem, he found traffic court less than helpful. While Martinez was waiting for his case, an MDX employee approached and offered a deal: Pay roughly half the tickets and the rest would disappear. Martinez initially declined, but when he stepped in front of Judge Thomas Cobitz, he quickly realized that option was his best bet.
"The judge said, 'What we'll do is call each ticket on its own, and you can say whether you're guilty or not,' " Martinez says. "He said, 'How do you plea on the first ticket?' I said, 'Not guilty,' so he said, 'I'm going to charge you as guilty and you'll get three points on your license. Want to go onto the next ticket?' "
Faced with the prospect of paying each ticket in full and a suspended license, Martinez took the MDX offer, agreeing to pay $3,900 in fines. To this day, he's still paying them in monthly installments — until 2016.
Though it's too late to undo his mess, Martinez wanted to get his story out as a warning to other Florida drivers.
"If that happened to me," he says, "it's probably happened to a lot of other people."