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Judge drops case of woman accused of failing to pay Beltway express lane tolls

View from Westpark Drive, on the bridge looking down at I-495 southbound traffic. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)

Hundreds or thousands of drivers accused of not paying tolls on the I-495 Express Lanes in Northern Virginia could seek dismissal of their court cases after a ruling this week by a Fairfax County judge, lawyers said.

Circuit Court Chief Judge Dennis J. Smith dropped four cases against a Fredericksburg woman, saying the statute of limitations had expired before the company charged with collecting the tolls brought her to court.

Defense lawyers familiar with similar cases said Transurban regularly waits longer than the one-year statute of limitations to seek civil penalties against drivers who have not paid tolls, opening the door to many other defendants in current cases to mount similar defenses in Fairfax County.

Transurban could not provide an estimate of the number of cases affected, but a lawyer who defends drivers in such cases said about 26,000 summons were issued to express lane violators in Fairfax County last year.

“Judge Smith’s ruling is huge,” said the lawyer, David Bernhard.

Transurban said it was working to update its toll-collection practices in light of the ruling.

"Our primary focus will continue to be educating customers on how to avoid unpaid tolls," spokesman Michael McGurk wrote in an e-mail. "While less than 0.3% of all 495 Express Lanes travelers end up in court, we'll continue to provide travelers opportunities to pay unpaid tolls at a low cost."

McGurk wrote that 1.5 million drivers have used the ­14-mile stretch of toll lanes, which opened in 2012. The lanes run from the Springfield interchange to north of the Dulles Toll Road along I-495.

Toni Cooley, a paralegal who uses the lanes to commute to work in Falls Church, was flagged for not paying tolls in November 2012. Marla Diaz, Cooley’s attorney, said E-ZPass told her client that her transponder was improperly mounted in her car, which caused the automated toll system on the express lanes to fail at registering payment.

Diaz said Cooley paid the $11.70 in tolls when she learned she owed them in February 2013, but by then her account had also accrued $300 in administrative fees. Diaz said Cooley declined to pay the fees because she felt they were unfair.

In December 2013, Trans­urban filed actions against Cooley totaling more than $2,200, including administrative fees and $1,800 in civil penalties for nonpayment, according to court records. Virginia law allows Transurban to assess civil penalties from $50 to $1,000 for unpaid tolls.

Cooley was found guilty in Fairfax County General District Court, but she appealed her cases to Circuit Court.

During the January trial, Diaz moved to have the cases dismissed, saying Transurban had not brought the case within the one-year statute of limitations for criminal procedures. Trans­urban argued that the case was actually a civil matter and had two years to bring action.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, Smith sided with Diaz and dismissed the cases.

Transurban has come under fire in recent months for its tolling practices on the express lanes.

The operator announced it would begin a forgiveness program for first-time offenders after some complained they had unwittingly racked up thousands of dollars in fines.

Diaz, Bernhard and other lawyers have begun challenging Transurban’s toll collection on various grounds in the Fairfax County courts.

“Hopefully, this is the first step to getting it fixed,” Diaz said.