washingtonpost.com
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 In Virginia, only 16 handicapped placards or license tags have been revoked this year.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.

With so many placards in circulation, policing how people use them is tricky at best. While Maryland requires anyone with a placard to carry a copy of their medical certification and Virginia issues a special ID card with each placard, police and parking enforcement officers generally don't have access to records that would let them check if a driver is approved for parking privileges.

Police say they can't issue a violation unless an officer witnesses the placard being used by someone to whom it doesn't belong. Police also say they don't patrol for parking violations on private property, such as in shopping mall parking lots.

The lack of enforcement has led to the rise of handicapped-parking vigilantes. At one Web site, self-appointed enforcers can even order special blue Post-it notes to leave on violators' cars that read: "You've been reported at HandicappedFraud.org."

Mike and Maureen Birdsall, web designers in Lafayette, Calif., started the site four years ago after Maureen became frustrated over not being able to find parking for her brother, who has cerebral palsy, and her grandfather, who was suffering from macular degeneration and dementia. Mike Birdsall said the site gets about 5,000 hits a month; about 50 reports of handicapped-parking misdeeds are posted each week.

"We started it so we could feel a little bit empowered about this," Mike Birdsall said. "I'm not happy with the response from the government agencies."

Disabled residents and their caregivers in the Washington area said some of the worst spots for handicapped-parking violations are at Metro stations, around government buildings, and at big-box outlets such as Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco, where the combination of tight parking and unwieldy 36-roll packages of toilet paper seems to intensify the temptation to park illegally.

Bobby Coward, a quadriplegic and co-founder of DIRECT Action, a local disability rights group, was not able to park in a handicapped space at Costco in Pentagon City two months ago because the spot was occupied by a car with no handicapped placard or tags. His mother was at the wheel; he cannot drive. When he complained to a store manager, he was told the lot was managed by a separate company. Then, according to Coward, a parking enforcement officer said he didn't have his ticketing book with him.

Residents near the Metrobus barn on 44th Street NW complain that an unusually large number of cars parked at meters in front of the depot have handicapped placards. On Friday morning, 10 of 30 cars parked on the depot's block sported placards. Asked if a lot of his colleagues were disabled, a Metro employee getting out of a red Toyota with a handicapped placard said the culprit was an office building across the street that housed services for seniors. But no such services were listed in the building's directory.

Many apparent scofflaws say they are accidental violators. At a metered spot on a downtown Washington street Wednesday, a reporter saw Mark Anthony of Hyattsville getting into a gray Volkswagen with a Maryland handicapped placard hanging from the rearview mirror. Anthony said the car and placard belonged to his mother, a diabetic whom he often shuttles around, especially at night because she can't see well in the dark.

That morning, however, he was alone. Anthony said he was using his mother's car because his was in the shop. "I forget it's in there," he said of the placard.

Asked if he has ever used his mother's placard to park in a handicapped space when he is alone, he shook his head. "I don't think [people] should park there if they're not handicapped," he said.

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