What's due process?
Trucker sues Louisiana DOT for violating his constitutional rights

by René Tankersley, feature editor

On March 9, 2000, at the Interstate10 scales near Toomey, LA, Gary Ring was cited for bypassing the scales and fined $2,000 on the spot. Gary says he’s not guilty and is suing the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) division of Weights and Standards (W&S) for violating his and other truckers’ constitutional rights to due process.

Ring’s story begins around 5 p.m. that afternoon when he approached the crowded scale entrance ramp near Toomey. Trucks were backed up the entrance ramp and as he slowed down to enter the ramp, the “bypass scales” light came on. He hit his turn signal, accelerated and merged into the right-hand lane.

Within seconds, a Calcasieu Parish deputy sheriff pulled him over to the right-hand shoulder with emergency lights flashing. The deputy took his license, told Ring to go to the next exit and return to the scales. Ring obeyed. The scale master then wrote Ring a ticket and in the remarks section wrote: “passed stationary scale westbound entered ramp, then pulled out” and below that wrote the fine amount of $2,000.

Ring was ordered to pay the $2,000 by cash, money order, electronic transfer or cashier’s check. He disputed the citation and was told it would be reviewed, but he must pay on the spot or the load would be seized. He paid. After waiting months to hear from W&S, his wife Lori called W&S and was told that the board decided in a closed hearing to let the ticket stand and keep the money.

“I just don’t understand how a traffic ticket can be handled in a closed door administrative meeting,” Gary said.

Gary’s experience wasn’t much different than most out-of-state truckers unfortunate enough to be fined in Louisiana. DOTD, through its W&S division, requires out-of-state truckers to pay their fines immediately or have their tractor, trailer and loads seized. After paying the fine, the driver receives no notice of a hearing and no opportunity to respond.

However, if Gary had been a Louisiana resident or operating a truck registered to a Louisiana citizen, he would have been allowed to surrender his driver’s license, receive a temporary operator’s permit and pay the fine within 30 days.

The Rings called Louisiana officials and attorneys until someone listened. The “someone” was attorney Howard Elliott, former general counsel for the Louisiana State Police. After some initial research into Gary’s complaint, Elliott found that Louisiana has been violating the rights of truckdrivers for more than 10 years, collecting approximately $10 million per year in fines.

Elliott contacted long-time colleague and friend, Madro Bandaries, who has become the spokesperson for Ring’s legal team. They recruited New Orleans attorney Kenneth “Budd” Goodwin, who specializes in class action lawsuits, to draft the petition. With more than 20 years experience in class action suits, Robert G. Creely of the Amato & Creely law firm in Gretna, LA, joined the legal team. With a four-attorney legal team, Gary is suing the Louisiana DOTD and W&S, asking for damages and recognition as a class action.

His petition says DOTD and W&S deprived Gary and other truckdrivers of certain rights. The petition asks that Gary and the other class members be awarded damages as follows:

* For violations of 42 USC 1983 in being deprived of substantive rights under color of state statute, regulation, custom, usage and practice;
* For deprivation of the right to an administrative review of any citation received from W&S personnel;
* For conversion of funds by DOTD and W&S; and
* For violations of Gary L. Ring’s rights of equal protection and due process.

The petition also asks for the return of all fines levied and collected plus attorney’s fees and court costs. Additionally, the document asks the court to name Gary as representative of a class consisting of other drivers who received citations from W&S personnel. The petition defines the potential class as:

“All of those truckdrivers who have paid on-site fines or fines within 30 days of receiving their citation, imposed by W&S personnel, under the threat of seizure/forfeiture of their trucks, cargo, and/or their driver’s licenses, or without such threat, and which drivers have not received adequate notice nor an adequate opportunity to contest the fines in an administrative review hearing conducted pursuant to the Louisiana Administrative Procedures Act.”

Bandaries believes numerous OOIDA members may be potential members of this class. For this reason, OOIDA is cooperating with Bandaries to identify drivers who received citations from Louisiana’s W&S within the past 10 years and a ticket or summons that they had to pay immediately before leaving the site.

Bandaries has set up a special telephone number for taking calls from drivers who received these citations from W&S in Louisiana. Drivers with these types of citations should call (504) 367-8236. To read the full petition, log onto www.landlinemag.com.

Who’s who?

What began as one man’s fight for his constitutional rights has snowballed into a class action lawsuit utilizing four law firms and could involve thousands of truckdriver plaintiffs. Louisiana’s DOT division of Weights & Standards (W&S) is the defendant, represented by Attorney General Richard P. Ieyoub. Here’s a rundown of who’s who in Ring vs. Louisiana DOTD:

The trucker

Gary Ring doesn’t see himself as a hero. He says he only wanted what was rightfully his when he began fighting the $2,000 fine levied against him by DOTD’s W&S. For a year, Gary fought the state alone the best way he knew how – by making as much noise as possible.

Gary’s a regular guy that drives a truck to make a living for his family. Gary and his wife Lori are raising three boys, ages 9, 13 and 21, in Virginia, IL, near Gary’s hometown of Beardstown.

Losing $2,000 put Gary and his family in financial straits during income tax time, a bad time of year for small business truckers.

“That $2,000 is the truck payment that I couldn’t make.” Gary said.

Lori Ring encourages her husband in his fight against DOTD, and helps by making telephone calls while Gary is on the road. “I get pretty ticked when I think about it,” Lori said. “They robbed us just as sure as if they had come into our home and held us at gunpoint.”

Gary has been driving trucks since 1984 and has been an owner-operator for three years. The past two years he has hauled specialized loads for Landstar.

The attorneys

Howard Elliott met Gary after another attorney told him about Elliott’s background in Louisiana’s law enforcement community. Elliott served 26 years as the general counsel for Louisiana’s state police until he retired in 2000 and began a private law practice.

“I couldn’t believe that Mr. Ring was treated the way he was treated,” Elliott said. “We had set up a hearing procedure that met all the requirements of due process.”

During Elliott’s tenure with the state police, Louisiana set up the Administrative Procedures Act after a landmark court case, Bell vs. Burson, established that law enforcement agencies could not take a driver’s license away unless they did so with due process.

Since then, the W&S officers, previously hired by DOTD, were split between the DOTD and the state police. Mobile officers transferred to the state police, while the officers at stationary weigh stations remained with DOTD.

“If a mobile police officer writes the W&S citation, the driver gets due process,” Elliott explained. “On the other hand, if one of their stationary officers writes the same violation, they don’t get due process. It’s heard by their own department, behind closed doors. They collected $10 million in these fines last year. Even if we don’t win this, it will force them to change and go to full due process.”

“They gave Mr. Ring a citation form that was last revised in 1989, and the law that provided administrative process was amended last in 1995,” Elliott added. “The form did not inform Mr. Ring of administrative due process. He found out, by asking questions, that he could write a letter to dispute the charges. After the decision was rendered, he wasn’t even sent a notice that he had lost.”

Three other attorneys have joined Elliott in Ring v. Louisiana DOTD: Madro Bandaries, the legal team’s spokesman and Elliott’s colleague with the state police from 1994-1997; and two class action specialists, Kenneth “Budd” Goodwin and Robert Creely of Amato & Creely.