WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - The Contact 5 Investigators went along with Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Nelson Tineo while he was working toll enforcement along the Turnpike in Palm Beach County.
It's a weekly ritual for FHP because the number of SunPass violators is a daily problem in south Florida.
Drivers pay the state about $850 million dollars each year in SunPass tolls. But roughly $30 million is not collected when drivers choose to pass through toll plazas and not pay.
“That's $30 million that we could have done something else with. We could have put in a couple of ramps to free up congestion at Glades Road or we could add some lanes, make it easier for merge somewhere," said Chad Huff, Public Information Manager for Florida’s Turnpike System.
Right now, Florida's Department of Transportation, which oversees the state's SunPass system, is trying to track down thousands of these habitual violators, so called toll thieves, who, according to the state, use the SunPass lane only to skip out on paying for it.
“They're very savvy and smart in what they're doing and they travel basically, flagrantly throughout the system and basically thumb their nose at the rest of us who are paying their tolls,” said Huff.
Those violations really add up.
The Contact 5 Investigators found drivers in Palm Beach County and along the Treasure Coast racking up SunPass charges worth thousands of dollars.
"It's against the law to not pay your tolls,” explained Huff.
But tracking down these violators can be a real challenge.
The Contact 5 Investigators spent nearly a week on the road, on the phone, even taking to Facebook to locate our area's top violators, like David Hoag whose address records traced him to a West Palm Beach duplex.
Documents show his "failure to pay" has left him with an open case in court. The state has gone so far as to suspend his driver's license, all because of his slew of SunPass charges totaling $6130. However, when we approached the person who answered the door at the home listed as his address, the new owner told us he moved from the home 4 years ago.
Then, there's Daniel Smith, whose address history lead us to a Wellington home. The man who answered the door there told us Smith moved to Homestead.
So we hit the Turnpike, paid our tolls and headed south.
According to the state, Smith, has been swindling SunPass for years, racking up so many violations he now leads our area as the number one SunPass violator owing $6,477.60. He too, was not living at the home we visited.
"You're finding out what we find out," said Huff who described the challenges of trying to find habitual violators.
Call it a game of catch me if you can, the state warns, will end the same way it began.
"It always comes down to pay us now or pay us later. Eventually luck runs out and we will catch up to them,” said Huff.
The state mails two bills to drivers before their names are handed over to a collection agency.
Last year, of the $15 million dollars in unpaid tolls sent to collection agencies, close to $4 million was recovered, according to the state.
When drivers continue to ignore their bills, they risk losing their license to drive.