A Philadelphia man has pleaded guilty to theft of services for not paying tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The development puts an end to a watershed case of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's new efforts to crack down on toll evasion, though the details of the plea could backfire on the Commission.
Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Enforcing Tolls
According to news reports of the incident, a 36-year-old Pennsylvania man had not paid for 2,264 trips on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the five-plus years between 2012 and 2017. The unpaid tolls and subsequent traffic fines had accumulated to nearly $128,000, more than any other toll evader, according to the Turnpike Commission.
After years of toll evasions going unprosecuted, the Pennsylvania legislature passed House Bill 2025 in 2016, which gave the Turnpike Commission more enforcement powers. Since then, the Commission has been referring toll evaders to the district attorneys' offices in Pennsylvania for prosecution. Now, the most egregious of cases are making headlines as they wrap up.
Prosecutors have been filing criminal charges for theft of services against drivers who owe money in unpaid tolls. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (DOT) has also been suspending licenses when drivers accumulate $500 or more in unpaid tolls or more than six toll violations.
Criminal Charges for Theft of Services
Theft law in Pennsylvania encompasses a wide range of conduct. Importantly, the body of theft law includes Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3926, which prohibits the theft of services – or the intentional benefit of services without paying for them.
While Pennsylvania's theft of services law was focused on services like electricity, or television or internet service, it can also include highway tolls. Pennsylvania prosecutors have been making use of this broad interpretation of the law to pursue toll evaders.
The penalties are the same as for a typical theft offense and include the payment of restitution for the services allegedly taken. That means toll evaders who owed more than $2,000 could face felony-level theft offenses.
Plea Deal Undermines Efforts to Collect Tolls
In this particular case, though, the terms of the guilty plea came as a surprise. In spite of the Turnpike Commission's insistence that it was aggressively prosecuting toll evaders, the terms of the plea deal involved five years of probation and required the Philadelphia man to pay $11,500, less than ten percent of the arrears.
It will be interesting to see how the other toll evasion cases shake out.
Criminal Defense Attorney Joseph D. Lento
The tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike are so steep that a significant portion of motorists has moved onto local roads, instead. Meanwhile, out-of-state drivers are shocked by the amount they have to pay.
However, the Turnpike Commission has made it clear that it was coming down hard on toll evaders now that they have more enforcement powers. The penalties that you can face are serious, and can drastically impact not just your right to drive, but your financial well-being, as well.