Misuse of handicapped parking placards is widespread

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 9:47 PM

Gregory Coley is working up to it, but can't bring himself to rat out his best friend - at least not yet. The friend's crime? He is still using his father's handicapped-parking placard even though the father died years ago.

Coley, 52, of Columbia Heights, feels conflicted because in a few weeks, he too will have his own blue handicapped-parking pass, legitimately obtained after he suffered a heart attack last year. "I would rat on anybody else," he said as he rested on the curb at 12th Street and New York Avenue NW. "That's not fair to the handicapped person who needs that parking space. There aren't but so many spaces."

In a commuter-clogged city where 25 cents buys only eight minutes at a parking meter, handicapped placards are a prized commodity. Families have been known to pass them down as if they were heirlooms. Thieves covet them: Last year, a Temple Hills man, Thais Miller, 19, was arrested for stealing placards from cars - ignoring global positioning systems and stereos - so he could sell them for $50 each.

The blue card allows users not only to park in choice spots, but to park at meters for free for double the maximum time allowed, up to a limit of four hours in Maryland and Virginia.

Anger over abuse of handicapped-parking placards boiled over last week when Martena Clinton, the Maryland woman whose Lexus went missing for 24 hours after Secret Service moved it during an appearance by President Obama at the Washington Convention Center, said she had parked the car in a handicapped space using her husband's placard.

Under District as well as Maryland rules, Clinton is not supposed to use a handicapped pass unless the person to whom the card was issued - her husband - is present. She said he was not with her that day. Regulations also prohibit a placard holder from allowing someone else to use their placard. Fines for misuse run up to $250 in the District and up to $500 in Maryland and Virginia.

But enforcement of the rules is sporadic at best. Police say they are reluctant to demand proof of a disability, even when a driver gets out and starts sprinting across the street. "Asking them if they have a disability is not appropriate," said D.C. police Lt. Nicholas Bruel. "It's dicey." In Virginia, only 16 handicapped placards or license tags have been revoked this year.

When police do crack down on disabled parking violators, they find easy pickings. On Wednesday, Maryland's Motor Vehicle Administration and Howard County police did a sweep targeting placard abuse for the second time this year, issuing a dozen tickets for as much as $350 to people in Ellicott City and Columbia who used placards issued in other people's names.

If the experience of other major cities is any guide, placard abuse is likely rampant. A 2007 investigation by the Massachusetts inspector general in three commercial areas in Boston found that out of nearly 1,000 placards observed, about a third appeared to be in use by someone other than the handicapped driver. Forty-nine were registered to people who had since died, including nine that were renewed after the person's death. A 2004 sampling by Seattle officials found that more than 75 percent of disabled placards were being used improperly.

Applicants for a handicapped placard or license plate must submit a doctor's note attesting to a disability such as lost use of a limb, need for a wheelchair, poor vision, or conditions that make it difficult to walk long distances.

Regulations require those who get placards to return them when they expire or are no longer needed. But Virginia, Maryland, and the District don't keep track of how many people turn in placards.

Officials do know, however, that they are issuing far more placards than they used to. In Maryland, for example, the number of handicapped placards jumped from 129,044 last year to 179,420 this year.

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