By CHRIS FUSCO; Chicago Sun Times Nov 12, 2011
One day early this month, Sarhonda A. Coleman headed to her job in the South Loop, and, with a light-blue handicap-parking placard in her windshield, parked for free while she worked her morning shift at the White Palace Grill.
With the handicap placard in place, she didn’t have to. State law allows disabled people who display handicap placards to park free all day in metered spots.
But Coleman, 39, isn’t disabled, state records show. And the placard she had in her new Volkswagen CC sedan had recently been reported stolen.
Coleman — who later admitted using the placard but said she had “no idea” it was stolen — is hardly an anomaly in Chicago. With metered parking now costing as much as $5 an hour downtown — a rate that’s set to rise to $6.50 in 2013 — more able-bodied drivers than ever are using handicap placards and handicap license plates to park for free, according to a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found:
† Between 2006 and 2010, the city of Chicago issued 12 tickets a year, on average, to drivers for displaying fake, altered, stolen, lost or expired handicap-parking placards. This year, that number has shot up to 155, just through Sept. 1.
† More handicap-parking cases — from drivers using other people’s placards to park for free to illegally using handicap-only spots in parking lots — are ending up in court, too. There were 68 such cases in Chicago in 2009, the year that a deal championed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley took effect that sold the city’s parking meters to a private consortium and parking rates began to rise. Last year, the number of cases went up 75 percent, to 119. There have been even more this year — 149 so far.
† Seemingly able-bodied drivers are routinely using handicap parking placards or license plates to park for free — most often at metered spots on the street, sometimes in stores’ private lots. Since early September, a retired Chicago Police Department lieutenant working with a Sun-Times reporter observed 82 such instances. The retired lieutenant, Robert Angone, knows the issue well: His 19-year-old daughter lost her left leg to cancer when she was just 6 months old and walks with a prosthetic.
† In 30 of the 82 instances the newspaper documented, the gender or age — or both — of the person seen using the placard didn’t match the person to whom it was assigned, according to Illinois secretary of state records.
† In two cases, the placards being used by seemingly able-bodied drivers had been issued to people who had since died.
† In a dozen cases, the placard or license-plate numbers didn’t turn up in the secretary of state’s records or had been issued outside Illinois, making it difficult to determine whether it was legitimate.
And then there’s Coleman, who was spotted using a placard that had been reported stolen over the summer by Clarence Seymour, a 74-year-old diabetic who has heart trouble and gets around with the aid of a mobility scooter and a cane.
Coleman said she was shocked to find out the tag she used was stolen. She said an uncle had given it to her and that she had been using it to drive around her grandmother, who recently died.
“I just found it a couple of days ago,” Coleman said. “I was doing cleaning. I found it. I used it. I had no awareness of what you’re talking about at all.”
Seymour said his placard apparently got snatched in May after his minivan stalled near 77th and Cottage Grove and he forgot to take it out of the van.
He also has a handicap license plate, so he has been able to get by without the placard. Still, he said of people who take or use other people’s handicap placards: “They need to be reported.”
Free metered parking for the disabled dates back decades to when public transportation wasn’t handicap-accessible and meters had to be fed with coin after coin.
To get a handicap-parking placard, disabled people have to submit a two-page form to the Secretary of State’s Office that’s signed by a doctor. There’s no charge for a placard, though there’s a $10 fee to replace a lost, damaged or stolen one.
Under Daley’s meter-privatization deal, Chicago taxpayers don’t keep any of the money collected through the city’s 36,000 metered spots. But the city does keep the money from parking tickets and handicap-parking arrests made by the police.
Now, Karen Tamley, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, is proposing that the city start towing away any car that displays a stolen, expired or fake placard. That would mean a $150 towing fee and $10 daily storage fee on top of the $200 ticket.
“We recognize this is a big issue and a problem,” said Tamley, who expects the City Council to consider her proposal early next year. “Our goal is trying to create another tool in our toolbox to address the abuse and try to create an increased financial disincentive for fraudulent placards.”
Under Illinois law, penalties for drivers caught using fake, altered, lost or stolen placards already are stiff. They can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, be fined as much as $2,500 and see their driver’s license suspended.
The same is true for anyone caught manufacturing bogus placards or selling real ones.
Only a fraction of cheaters ever get arrested, though. That’s because the police need to catch able-bodied people in the act, and that can take hours to make a single case.
And, in cases in which someone appears healthy but has a legitimate placard or plate, it’s hard to prove that they shouldn’t have handicap-parking privileges.“If a physician does sign off on it, then we’re kind of in a Catch-22,” said Bill Bogdan, disability liaison for the Secretary of State’s Office, which handles the distribution of about 600,000 handicap placards and 82,000 handicap license plates statewide.
Indeed, many of the drivers Angone spotted appeared to be able-bodied but still had legitimate handicap placards, records show. People with health problems that aren’t readily apparent — for instance, someone with a serious heart problem — could qualify.
Still, Bogdan said that, based on his experience, “There are more people that probably convinced their doctors to give them a placard” even without a serious medical condition.
Many doctors seem to think the placards only allow their patients “to park closer at the Wal-Mart,” Bogdan said. “They don’t realize the [placards] allow them to park for free.”
Bogdan said he thinks violations will rise as parking fees go up.
“There is a direct correlation with the increase in the parking-meter fees resulting in an increase of placard abuse in the city of Chicago,” Bogdan said. “I’m sure you’re going to see even more placards being used as the fees go up.”
Michael Manville, a Cornell University assistant professor of city and regional planning, has studied handicap-parking problems in Los Angeles and agrees that policing handicap-parking violations can be tough. “It’s very, very hard to crack down on,” Manville said.
In Philadelphia, city leaders eliminated all-day free parking for disabled people in metered spots downtown and instead offered a one-hour free-parking grace period after metered time expires.
The Philadelphia ordinance, which also mandated a handicap-only space on every metered block, took effect in April 2000. In the first nine months after that, meter revenues went up 17 percent as handicap-marked vehicles disappeared off the streets.
“It’s worked very well,” said Linda Miller, deputy executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. “We haven’t had any complaints at all about there not being free parking for people with disabilities.”
Contributing: Art Golab
Handicap-parking complaints can be filed with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office online at cyberdriveillinois.com. Click on “Parking Program for Persons with Disabilities Abuse Complaint Form.”
†People caught using handicap placards or handicap license plates without the placard- or plate-holder present face a fine of at least $500 and a 30-day driver’s license suspension. The police also can confiscate illegally used placards.
†Doctors who make false statements to help someone obtain a handicap plate or placard face fines of up to $1,000.
†People caught altering placards; manufacturing fakes; using fake, lost or stolen placards; or selling real or fake placards could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by jail time, fines of up to $2,500 and a one-year driver’s license suspension