PUCO civil forfeiture program
Ensuring safe commercial transportation throughout Ohio is a priority of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO). One way this is achieved is through developing consumer protection and safety regulations and monitoring motor carriers for compliance with the proper federal and state regulations.
If a motor carrier is found to be in violation of a transportation regulation, they are issued a civil forfeiture, or fine. The PUCO facilitates the civil forfeiture program in an effort to deter violations and encourage compliance with the federal and state rules.
Prior to 1988, transportation violations were issued by local courts. Because violations were issued against a driver, motor carriers had little incentive to comply with safety regulations. Additionally, violations were not included in the carrier’s safety record, making it difficult to identify carriers with patterns of violations.
To create a consistent means to track safety violations and issue penalties, the PUCO was given authority to assess civil forfeitures for violations involving highway transportation and hazardous materials in 1988. In 1995, Ohio law authorized the PUCO to assess civil forfeitures for all motor carrier safety violations. The PUCO annually issues an average of 3,000 penalty notices and collects approximately $2.5 million in civil forfeitures.
Driver/vehicle inspections and compliance reviews
Civil forfeitures are issued for violations found during roadside inspections and compliance reviews.
- Driver/vehicle inspections are conducted by inspectors from the PUCO and the Ohio State Highway Patrol. These inspections of vehicles and/or drivers occur while in transit and find single instances of noncompliance.
- Compliance reviews are conducted solely by PUCO inspectors and involve a complete review of a motor carrier’s financial, safety and driver records. Compliance reviews look at the entire company and encompass all instances of noncompliance.
Violations discovered during a driver/vehicle inspection or compliance review are electronically submitted or uploaded to a PUCO database. Once this information is received at the PUCO offices, a compliance officer reviews the information to determine the appropriate fines, if any, that should be assessed.
When a violation is found, the parties involved will receive a notice from the PUCO. This notice can either be a "Notice of Apparent Violation," where the violation is viable but does not warrant a fine, or a "Notice of Intent to Assess Forfeiture," where the violation is found to be viable and warrants a fine.
Hazardous materials driver/vehicle inspection violations
There are seven factors used to determine the civil forfeiture assessed for a hazardous materials driver/vehicle inspection, which include:
- Nature and gravity of violation
- Circumstances of violation
- Extent of the violation
- Degree of responsibility
- Violation history of the respondent
- Actual harm done
- Type of hazardous materials being transported
Non-hazardous materials driver/vehicle inspection violations
To determine the civil forfeiture assessed for violations in a non-hazardous materials driver/vehicle inspection, the PUCO uses the recommended fine schedule from the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). There are four groups of out-of-service violations, which result in the motor carrier being unable to continue driving until the necessary maintenance is received. Group 1 violations are the most severe, with Group 4 being the least severe. For more information is available on the CVSA website.
Compliance review violations
The PUCO uses federal regulations (CFR 49 385) to determine the civil forfeitures associated with violations found during compliance reviews. In addition to the specific fine levels laid out in the regulations, other factors such as the number of violations and history of the carrier are considered when determining the total amount of a civil forfeiture.
Motor carrier operations that have been issued a civil forfeiture for a violation have several options. Companies who wish to settle the violation can do so by paying the full amount of the civil forfeiture.
If a motor carrier wishes to discuss the outcome of an inspection or compliance review, the company has the opportunity to request a conference. This conference allows the carrier to meet with a PUCO compliance officer to present information that could help mitigate or dismiss the violation.
Based upon the outcome of the conference, the PUCO will issue either a settlement agreement or a "Notice of Preliminary Determination." The settlement agreement details an agreed upon settlement between the two parties, while the Notice of Preliminary Determination advises the company that the staff of the PUCO believes the violation is viable but gives the company the opportunity to request a formal administrative hearing to present information. This hearing is conducted by a PUCO administrative law judge and resembles a courtroom proceeding where the carrier can present information and seek to have the decision of the PUCO staff overturned or modified.
The PUCO has an abeyance program for companies with violations that provides an incentive for the company to implement measures to prevent future violations. In the abeyance program, a portion of the total forfeiture issued to a company is held for one year. A follow-up compliance review is conducted during that year. If the compliance review finds evidence showing that the specific violation has been remedied, the amount of the forfeiture held is waived.