Handful of toll jumpers rack up $140,000 in fines from Beaufort County

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Handful of toll jumpers rack up $140,000 in fines from Beaufort County

By ANNE CHRISTNOVICH
achristnovich@beaufortgazette.com
Published Wednesday, April 25, 2012   |  492 Words  |  

Not paying tolls on the Cross Island Parkway might save you $1.25 here and there, but the state is keeping track, as two drivers who owe about $10,000 each are finding out.

They're among 30 scofflaws whose fines for jumping the toll total over $140,000.

One reason for the big fines is the way Beaufort County magistrate judges have begun applying a state law. It allows them to slap up to $50 extra in civil penalties for each violation, in addition to the fines from the S.C. Department of Transportation, which manages the parkway.

So far, the extra civil penalties have added $54,300 to the $86,000 the toll violators already owed. Most owe a total of between $2,500 and $3,700, according to court records.

The law allowing the extra penalties isn't new, but Beaufort County magistrates were unaware of it until last summer, when judges Darlene Smith and Beth Prince discovered it, according to magistrate court administrator Stephanie Garst

"We just learned this was something we could do through a statute," Garst said. Some magistrates were unaccustomed to handling toll-violation cases because they'd always been heard by former magistrate Rita Simmons, who retired in 2009, she said.

Of the 30 violators, 20 have addresses on Hilton Head Island, eight are in Bluffton and two are in Hardeeville and Glennville, Ga. Garst said none of the violators had paid up as of Wednesday. They have until May 9.

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

An automatic camera at the toll plaza photographs license plates of toll violators. DOT workers use the plate to identify the vehicle's owner and forwards the information to magistrate court. A $10 fine is issued for first-time violators; $25 for subsequent violations. Drivers must pay the toll plus the fine within 30 days

If drivers ignore the first penalty, the DOT can issue a summons for court and tack on another $80 to cover the court filing fee, Garst said.

Then, one of four things can happen:

  • If the DOT is paid before the court date, the case ends there with no extra penalties.
  • If a driver goes to court to challenge the penalty and is found guilty, it's up to the judge to decide how much in civil penalties to add, Garst said. The law says civil penalties can't exceed more than $50 per violation.
  • If a violator doesn't show up in court, Garst said the judge assumes the violator accepts all penalties and adds the $50 per violation in addition to the DOT fines.
  • If the violator doesn't pay those fines within 30 days, the vehicle's registration can be suspended and remain suspended until fines are paid.
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