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Monday, November 26, 2007

PUC Threatens Crackdown On Amish Transportation

From the DuBois Courier Express

Transportation options for members of the Amish community are few and far between.

When the horse and buggy doesn't cut it, Amish sometime turn to their neighbors for transportation. Often, in return, money is exchanged to cover costs.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission held a public meeting at the Brady Township Community Center earlier this week to tell those in attendance this monetary exchange, in some cases, violates the rules and regulations for passenger carriers transporting people for compensation in Pennsylvania.

In the Indiana, Jefferson, and Clearfield counties, 95 warning letters have been issued to individuals over the last three years for violating PUC's code for transportation for compensation.

Of these complaints and investigations, which have taken place since 2003, some cases aren't people going from home to the grocery store, but transporting people statewide.

"We are going to stop with the warning letters and begin issuing fines and taking formal action in the coming months," PUC Public Relations Representative Jennifer Kocher said. "Since we're making that transition from a time period where we were trying to educate and warn people to something that could have financial and fiscal risks, we wanted to make sure we had one last large push where people could come to get information."

The goal of the PUC is to make sure carriers are operating safely, have a reasonable rate, and are operating with insurance.

The PUC has heard of insurance companies refusing to pay insurance claims because the driver was found to be carrying paying passengers without the proper insurance.
"If you are transporting, you must have $35,000 of property and physical injury insurance. In other words, if someone is riding in your vehicle and you are in an accident where you're at fault, you have to be able to pay them at least $35,000," PUC Transportation Compliance Specialist Robert Bingaman said. "That is per person."

One man in attendance stood up to say he has been a customer of State Farm Insurance since 1963 and they are not willing to offer the kind of insurance necessary to meet the PUC's standards.

"There are several insurance companies who will offer coverage," Bingaman said. "The only thing I can tell you is to start calling up as many insurance agents as you can."
Aside from insurance coverage, if people are holding out to provide a service for compensation, they must be registered as a carrier with the PUC.

Holding out is when an individual makes it public knowledge they are prepared to drive someone for compensation.

Although considered a business transaction, formal advertisement is not necessary. If people who the carrier doesn't personally know, are aware of and use the service - the operator is holding out.

"If you take friends on a hunting or fishing trip and they help you pay for gas, you are not holding out to the public," PUC Deputy Chief Counsel Eric Rohrbaugh said. "When you take someone to the grocery store on a regular basis and they're paying you for it and then other people start calling you up and asking for the service - that is a little different."

"If you want to give your neighbor a ride, that is fine, but once any kind of money exchanges hands our authority is triggered," PUC Assistant Counsel Heidi Wushinske reiterated.
The cost to register as a common carrier, or someone who provides transportation for compensation, with the PUC is $350. This cost can vary depending on the coverage area an applicant covers.

"Do you see the uniqueness of this situation here? Not just in this community, but across the state. This is a new situation which needs to be addressed," one man attending the public meeting said. "We understand this is the law. These people (the Amish) operate under law as strictly as they can, but you're being pretty unforgiving."

Profiling was one of the complaints voiced by many local residents at the meeting.
A Penn State student said she has recently contacted the Clearfield County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union about an incident where a vehicle carrying Amish was barricaded into a private drive because there were suspicions the driver was providing illegal transportation for compensation.

The Penn State student said she was unsure of the lines defined by the PUC.
At Penn State, a group of students who don't know each other get together, compare schedules and organize transportation to school to save money.

Members of the PUC panel said state law provides a provision for carpooling.
"The point is me and my State College friends will not get pulled over. We aren't in the car thinking 'are we going to get arrested or are we going to get fined," the Penn State student said. "The point is you cannot discriminate that if me and my friends from State College pitch in on a tank of gas it's okay, and if me and my Amish friends split the cost of a tank of gas to go to the store it's not okay."

Kocher stressed the PUC does not profile.

"We do not profile, particularly when we are watching a driver or have been told of a driver. We know from some past history or from a complaint that this particularly vehicle has been used in the transportation of someone for compensation," Kocher said.

A local resident said a Sandy Township officer escorted a horse and buggy out of the township.
"As far as you are saying with profiling, we would not stop you because you are Amish and you are in a buggy," DuBois City police Chief Ron LaRotonda said. "We do have an ordinance which prohibits any defecation on the road. That is the only ordinance we have that could restrict you in DuBois City."

In a phone interview, Sandy Township police Chief Don Routch said he was not aware of such an incident.

He also said there is no ordinance in the township which would prohibit or hinder Amish travelers.

One Amish man stood before the full hall to explain Amish beliefs and the affect it has on their mobility.

"Our creed is to live in such a manner that we do not become a burden to society. Therefore, it is no longer feasible or practical to travel on roads the way it is needed today," he said calmly. "We don't want to be a burden to society so we have taken other measures and means. We have had these wonderful people offer to help us. Are you aware, PUC, to do what is done on a monthly or weekly basis could take from 300--500 drivers?"

The PUC code is passed by the General Assembly, and it is the job of the PUC to uphold it.
When action is taken the prosecution is not criminal, rather a fine is given.

Because the PUC rules are a civil code, probable cause is not necessary when investigating.
"The Legislature empowered the Public Utility Commission to investigate any business and any area to find out if someone is operating illegally," Bingaman said. "This is a civil matter. Under civil law, you do not need a search warrant. The 14th amendment is not valid for civil complaints."

Members of the panel said investigations occur when complaints are filed. Complainants remain anonymous, however witnesses have to be provided.
One resident asked how complainants know compensation is being exchanged for transportation.

To this, a member of the panel simply said, "they watch."
"If someone comes up to you and says, 'You don't know me, but my neighbors got a ride from you last week. Can you give me a ride to the post office' - I don't think that is friends," Rohrbaugh said.

"That has happened to me. This is a community of friends. Am I not allowed to be a Christian," one woman asked.

In explaining the community's beliefs, the Amish man said other means are used but are not always a feasible option.

"Our way of life is a very important tenant of the teachings of our religion," the Amish man said. "We go by bus and by train whenever we can. Our freedom of movement and our way of life is severely threatened beyond what you can imagine if we can't come to a consensus and make some kind of provisions so we can exist in harmony, not as being a burden."

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