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In California there are several toll roads where you "pay to exit." There is a light and a license plate camera if you fail to pay. A vending machine accepts only cash and only exact change. There is no explanation of this in the signage as you approach the toll station or enter the highway miles prior. What's worse, the vending machine will accept your $20 bill and then you read the fine print "No Change Given." So you end up paying much more than the advertised price of $2.50 if you must

  • use large bills (because it is all you have)
  • lease an "easy pass" (monthly fee rather than a per-use fee)
  • "pay by mail" (service charges and postage)

A toll road is a private business regulated by the California Transport Commission (thank you user71659):

These federal laws may be superseded by the CA Transport Commission regulations:

  • coinage Act of 1965, Section 31 U.S.C. 5103 "US coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."
  • false advertisement - signage advertises $2.50 but drivers pay much more on average (>$5.00 ?), because of the "do not make change" policy and other hidden fees.
  • extortion - detaining you and your car until you pay the unexpectedly high toll
  • entrapment - deception that results in someone committing a crime (leaving without paying) - anecdotally non-EasyPass drivers owe far more in fines than the total amount of $2.50 tolls they owe
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    Equitable claim of unjust enrichment? Oct 21, 2023 at 15:59
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    A private toll road would never be an unregulated business. They're regulated by the state DOT or turnpike authority. In California, this would be the California Transport Commission under CVC 23301. Pay by mail fees are authorized under CVC 23301.8
    – user71659
    Oct 21, 2023 at 18:27
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    @hobs The law explicitly authorizes electronic-only tolling or plate and electronic, CVC 23302(b) and (d). Electronic tolling only is pretty common in the country for tolled express lanes.
    – user71659
    Oct 22, 2023 at 18:42
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    @hobs A homeless person can receive mail via general delivery. CA FasTrak electronic tolling can be replenished by cash. None of those arguments are actually valid, you simply need to know what to do.
    – user71659
    Oct 26, 2023 at 3:22
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    This isn't an accurate description of how the toll system in California currently works. It is cashless at the exit. There are a variety of options payable within two to five days without penalty that do not involve a vending machine that doesn't make change.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 26, 2023 at 5:02

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One basic issue is that as a regulated industry, its rates, including a "no change" policy are subject to government review and have its blessing if approved.

As it happens, there is no longer a "no change" policy, because at the site of the tolling, the system is cashless, even though you can pay in cash on an invoice from a toll operator or by other means (which renders some of the analysis below moot).

Even if there were still "no change" tolls, while you might overpay once, often by $7.50, or $17.50, for not having change out of ignorance, after that your decision to drive on a toll road without having a pass or proper change is on you for not being prepared for an issue known to you. This loss is de minimus and wouldn't be worth litigating over even if the excess charge wasn't blessed by the tolling authority regulator.

Also, your one time "surprise" overpayment is far less than $7.50, or $17.50, because the extra charges associated with the pay-by-mail option usually aren't as large as that. And, in general, when you make a claim for damages in court, you have an obligation to show that you mitigated your damages by choosing the least damaging alternative. So, if there is, for example, a $3.99 pay near me fee added to the $2.50 toll, your damages are $3.99 even if you actually paid a $2.50 fine with a $10, $20, or $100 bill, because you could have limited your damages to $3.99 by electing the pay-near-me option.

Similarly, if you can be released by consenting to pay-near-me, or by paying $10, $20, or $100, you can't reasonably make a claim for extortion or entrapment for more than the dollar amount at which you could have obtained your liberty, because by not doing so, you have implicitly valued your liberty at less than that dollar amount.

The Coinage Act of 1965, 31 U.S.C. § 5103, which states that "US coins and currency are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues," doesn't help you either. The tolling authority accepts U.S. coins and currency. Nothing about the Coinage Act of 1965 requires a seller of goods or service to make change if you don't have the exact amount of U.S. coins and currency for the debt you need to pay. Indeed, you can pay a toll in California within five days in cash at a variety of locations, even if you don't pay it at the time (elsewhere in California it is 48 hours). The Coinage Act doesn't govern what the amount of the debt that you have to pay will be.

Indeed, in general, there is no federal law requiring companies to accept anything other than exact payment for debts owed to them by making change when paid in U.S. coins and currency. So, state law controls the issue, and the fact that the State of California's relevant regulators have approached the "no change" arrangement means that you have no state law remedy.

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  • The California toll system has a cashless option, but it also has a cash option for payment. I just utilized the cash part of the system last week. Perhaps cash is only an option in Southern California near the border, but toll booths continue to accept bills and offer no change in San Diego County.
    – hobs
    Oct 26, 2023 at 18:35
  • I'm not a lawyer, but I assume the de minimus principle would not apply to the millions in excess charges due to the no make change policy. Similar class action suits have been filed against businesses for junk fees in the past. So clearly this is illegal for an unregulated business. Assuming you are correct, I'm surprised it is legal for a regulated business to deceive and exploit their customers with behaviors that are illegal for unregulated businesses.
    – hobs
    Oct 26, 2023 at 18:45
  • States have been sued in the past to require them to enforce federal law, even for regulated businesses, such as state colleges that fail to comply with civil rights law. Regulated businesses are not immune from federal law.
    – hobs
    Oct 27, 2023 at 17:47
  • @hobs There really isn't any plausible federal law to apply, and even if there was, state sovereign immunity to suits arising under federal law has to be waived very explicitly by the federal law. There is a strong presumption that a state government can't be sued under federal law by members of the general public unless the federal statute explicitly does so without commandeering the state government.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 27, 2023 at 19:47
  • @hobs The linked cited which discusses tolls in San Diego county and elsewhere states that: "California Tolls are cashless. California uses an all-electronic tolling system, so check your payment options below." I certainly haven't driven every toll road and bridge in California and while my son in law is from San Diego, I've never been there. Sources found on the Internet can be wrong and maybe my source is. But the availability of a non-cash option that can mitigate your harm and not detain you undermines the weight of the concerns raised in the question.
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 27, 2023 at 19:52

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