Bill aims to crack down on toll evasion loophole

Blow through a bridge toll booth without paying, and you will soon get a bill for it plus a $25 fine, unless you are one of the 1.5 million Californians protected by the confidential address program.

"The fact of the matter is it's very hard for us to find some of these folks," said Randy Rentschler with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which manages Bay Area tolls and fines.

A bill working its way through the state Legislature aims to change that. A 1978 law designed to protect police officers and other public officials from harm keeps their home addresses secret, even from those government agencies who want to send them a ticket.

In Southern California where there are many toll roads, the confidentiality program caught the attention of Assemblyman Jeff Miller, R-Orange County, who says in the last fiscal year the state lost out on $13 million in uncollected tolls. He has authored a bill to change that.

"The goal is not to diminish any of the protection to any of these individuals, it's to simply make sure that nobody is above the law and that they pay their fines just like everybody else," he said.

There was a time when anyone could walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles with a license plate number and walk out with a home address for someone not in the confidentiality program. That changed after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a stalker who did just that. Now everyone's address is protected.

However, the program remained in place and continued to grow. The covered categories now include not only sworn and non-sworn law enforcement employees, politicians and bureaucrats -- their spouses and children -- but also categories like museum guards and park rangers.

"Oh, it's outrageous the amount of categories that are out there that are protected by confidentiality," said Miller.

In the two-year period from June 2008 to May 2010, more than 4,000 drivers in the confidentiality program went through Bay Area bridge toll booths more than 27,000 times without paying. Only about a third of those were collected. One of those drivers skipped a $4 toll and the associated fine 467 times in an 18-month period.

"There's very few, maybe a couple dozen folks who clearly know that they're not paying their toll," said Rentschler. "They use the bridges every single day and they're ether asking the state and us for an interest-rate loan or trying to get out of paying."

Miller's bill would make them easier to find.

"My bill would simply require a business address be put on the DMV form so in case they did get a ticket and did have confidentiality, they would have a business address to be able to mail the ticket to," said Miller.

"We don't believe that anybody is above the law," said Ron Cottingham, executive director of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, a lobby also known as PORAC. "We would support something that says we're going to collect this fine from you."

Miller's bill will be making its way through committee starting in February or March.

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