Wednesday, April 16, 2008

some people are just morons

Philadelphia Inquirer

In the hurried life of the E-ZPass lane, there are slipups - moments when a driver forgets to lift the transponder into place against the windshield, or leaves home without it.

Then there are the cheats - zooming through the computerized lanes without ever opening an account, stealing a free ride on a toll road.

Among the latter, Frank Maier is considered a superstar.

According to Delaware officials, he is the state's top E-ZPass violator, accused of racking up 633 illegal trips through state tollbooths, mostly on I-95.

Now the 55-year-old Maryland man could face a different kind of trip - to state prison for up to two years. Under Delaware's new crackdown, E-ZPass evaders with more than $1,000 in unpaid charges face prosecution for theft of services, a felony under the state's criminal code.

Maier owes $4,748 in tolls and $30,000 in fees and penalties, said Darrel Cole, a spokesman for the Delaware Department of Transportation. He was aghast at Maier's alleged exploits, logged from Jan. 2, 2005, through Oct. 30, 2007.

"Six hundred thirty-three times is unbelievable," Cole said. "It's not a mistake, an 'Oops, I forgot.' It's 'I'm going to violate the law, and I don't care what anyone thinks.' "

Maier, who lives in Abingdon and does not have an E-ZPass account, could not be reached for comment.

Under E-ZPass, drivers typically open an account with a credit card and receive a transponder to affix to their windshield. The transponder triggers the monitoring system when the vehicle uses an E-ZPass lane, causing tolls to be deducted from the driver's prepaid account.

Cole declined to divulge specifics of Maier's case, saying, "I don't want to give tips on how to evade" the tolls. He said Maier was accused of "committing a fraud with a license plate."

Warrants for Maier's arrest were issued Monday, and he turned himself in. He was arraigned and released on $2,000 unsecured bail, Cole said.

"Oof, that's a lot," said Carl DeFebo, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority. "I don't believe that we've ever had anybody in that range."

In New Jersey, Joe Orlando, spokesman for that state's turnpike authority, called the numbers in Maier's case "a valiant effort." But they pale next to those of Stephen Shells.

"Right now our reigning champion . . . is coming to us with 1,444 violations," Orlando said yesterday.

Shells was arrested April 3 by state police who went to his Lakewood home with thousands of pictures of his license plate taken by E-ZPass cameras. Most of the toll-dodging, Orlando said, was on the Garden State Parkway.

He owes $1,700 in tolls and $36,000 in administration fees.

But the title of New Jersey's most creative offender goes to a driver who hooked his license plate to a rope inside the car, Orlando said. Going through the tolls, he'd tug the rope, causing the plate to flip up so that the cameras couldn't catch the tag number. Details of the case weren't available yesterday.

While some escapades are humorous, they have a serious bottom line. Nationwide, bridges, tunnels and roads generate an estimated $8 billion in tolls annually. How much is lost to theft is hard to quantify.

Since Delaware began aggressively pursuing E-ZPass scofflaws a year ago, it has collected more than $2 million, mostly from drivers with "maybe a couple dozen" offenses, Cole said.

"We want a message sent that it's a serious business here," he said. "We don't take this kind of violation lightly."

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