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Skip the toll on the PA Turnpike? You could face felony charges

Both ordinary and commercial drivers do it. Based on information collected last summer, more than 10,000 drivers have gotten into the habit of dodging the tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Each of those 10,000 drivers owes $500 or more in unpaid Pennsylvania Turnpike tolls and fees. The worst 100 offenders have at least $21,000 in unpaid tolls. One driver used the E-ZPass lane without a valid transponder over 1,600 times.

You probably know that a 2017 law allows PennDOT to suspend your vehicle registration if you reach $500 in outstanding tolls. Did you know that if you exceed $2,000 in unpaid tolls, a local prosecutor could file felony "theft of services" charges?

It's already happening, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. Local prosecutors working with the Turnpike Commission have already filed at least 13 criminal cases.

It was the CEO of the Turnpike Commission who came up with the idea, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A former FBI agent, he was surprised when prosecutors told him that nonpayment of tolls was a civil matter. He personally researched the law and convinced the prosecutors that theft of services charges could be leveled against both individuals and companies found to owe more than $2,000 in tolls.

There may be a good reason for that. The vehicle registration law was passed after a 2016 audit determined that the Turnpike Commission lacked the authority to collect unpaid tolls. At that time, the Turnpike's unpaid tolls totaled $61.3 million. The audit, performed by the Pennsylvania Department of the Auditor General, warned of that inaction could bring about a statewide transportation crisis by 2023.

Of the tolls owed by the top 100 offenders, about 52 percent were skipped in three counties: Montgomery, Bucks and Philadelphia. That does not mean that toll scofflaws in other counties are safe, however.

The Turnpike Commission is sorting through each county's unpaid tolls and will begin prosecuting each county's top 10 toll offenders. Cases -- complete with the photos the Turnpike takes of each vehicle passing through an E-ZPass lane -- have been underway for months.

You may be wondering if you have any unpaid Turnpike tolls -- or you may know very well that you do. If you're wondering, check the Turnpike's E-ZPass site using your license plate.

If you owe $500, you could have your vehicle registration revoked. If you owe $2,000, you could be facing criminal charges. Either way, contact an attorney. A lawyer can protect your rights and can help you minimize the negative consequences. Payment plans may be available, and you will be in a better position if you don't wait until the charges are filed.

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