What a fraud

Use of blue disability placards in Sacramento doubles as downtown scammers vie for free parking

An undercover parking cop on the 500 block of O Street watches a middle-aged woman stroll toward a dusty black Honda Accord.

“That’s her,” the officer mutters. “I know for sure that’s her.”

He rushes over to the Honda as the woman opens the car’s door. The vehicle is parked in a metered space, a blue disabled-parking pass dangling inside from the windshield.

“Do you own that disabled-parking permit?” the cop asks.

At first, the driver insists the permit is hers. But when the undercover cop proves it belongs to her husband, the driver quickly changes her tune. But it’s too late.

This scenario, which occurred last week, is more and more common in Sacramento. A recent survey by the city’s parking-services department found that a shocking number of drivers now use disabled permits. In some cases, especially along busy N Street near the state Capitol where parking is scarce, nearly 75 percent of spaces are filled with cars using the blue disabled passes on weekdays.

Vehicles displaying these placards can park all day for free in metered spaces. And, overall, the number of disabled placards in Sacramento County has increased 81 percent over the past 10 years, with 103,000 residents now using them.

The undercover officer who busted the Honda driver ended up seizing her disabled placard and writing a citation. He told SN&R the woman had used the placard for three straight days without her disabled husband in the car—a clear violation of state law.

“I’m kind of embarrassed,” said the driver, who works at the California Energy Commission but preferred to remain anonymous. “I didn’t know I’d get in trouble for it, because my husband has a terminal illness.” She claimed that she uses the placard only on days when her husband had neurology appointments.

“I feel sorry that she’s going through that with her husband,” the city officer said, “but at the same time, I’m pretty sure she knows she’s not allowed to use it if he’s not there.” He reminded that disabled-parking passes aren’t transferable. And drivers who forge the blue placard or use someone else’s permit can be charged with a misdemeanor, paying fines up to $3,500, and even landing in jail.

But some Sacto drivers still haven’t got the message. In fact, more residents than ever are using placards to avoid paying for on-street parking. And statewide, the numbers have skyrocketed to 2.5 million placards—an increase of 79 percent since 2001, leaving state and local officials scratching heads as to why.

“We think 15 percent, conservatively, of the downtown-urban-center drivers are using placards,” said Linda Tucker, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation. With more placards, she said, comes more fraud.

So far this year, undercover officers from the Sacramento Task Force on Placard Abuse have written 59 citations for drivers caught using someone else’s disabled placard—slightly behind last year, when 124 citations were issued, and way behind 2010, when 183 drivers were cited for using the blue parking passes illegally.

So is placard abuse getting better or worse?

SN&R shadowed a task-force officer, who didn’t want his name revealed, earlier this month. He had several suspicious vehicles on his list, which he’d been observing for multiple days.

One car, a dark-colored SUV, was registered to a middle-aged male but was displaying a placard owned by 93-year-old female. This is a common type of placard fraud, and it happens when drivers use disabled passes issued to a deceased relative, explained the undercover enforcement officer.

“If they’re not able to show that the registered owner of the placard is with them, I’m going to issue a citation, and I confiscate the placard,” he said.

Before busting the female owner of the black Honda on O Street, the officer did his homework. He checked both the car’s license plate and the placard number with the Department of Motor Vehicles and realized the owners didn’t match. Both people had the same last name, but the officer said he had watched the woman park for three days without anyone else in the car.

The rules are clear, he said. “They think that’s 100-percent legit, and it’s not,” said the officer. “Once you drop [disabled passengers] off, you’re no longer transporting the disabled person anymore. Now you’re transporting yourself to work.”

The city task force, which first started in 1996, still surprises people. Jackie Buttle works at the California Environmental Protection Agency on I Street and uses a red temporary placard that’s good for six months while she recovers from back surgery.

Buttle has already run into the city’s not-so-secret parking squad since she started with the temporary pass. “I was just harassed the other day about it,” she said. “I didn’t actually realize how bad a problem [placard abuse] was until I needed one.”

Other drivers feel the city should back off. Darin Clark, an analyst at the EPA who avoids parking downtown, said fraud happens because Sacramento has “dinosauric” parking rules and won’t create enough parking spaces for commuters.

“I think [placard abuse] is just feedback for how badly the parking situation has been handled downtown,” Clark said. “I can understand why they do it.”

And, as easy as it might seem, observing placard abuse is a delicate process. An athletic guy who displays a placard while parking at the gym? He might have a heart condition or a vision problem, explained Howard Chan, manager for the city’s parking division.

To avoid profiling disabled people, he said enforcement officers will check anyone using the placard. “It’s a little silly to see our officers asking someone who’s obviously missing a limb to see their ID,” Chan said, “but we do it anyway, just for consistency.”

Disabled-rights advocates argue that this raises more issues: They believe cracking down on placards could spark a backlash against the blue parking passes.

“Sometimes people assume, because a vehicle is parked all day [with a placard], it’s fraud use,” said Deborah Doctor, a lobbyist with Disability Rights California. “What they’re missing is that disabled people actually work and could legitimately be working all day.”

But Chan says there’s no other way to enforce the law to keep spaces open for disabled residents and paying drivers. He pointed out that DMV officials have considered adding photographs to the placards to make them more like ID cards, but dropped the idea after protests from disability advocates.

“There are people who think that’s a great idea and other people who expressed privacy and safety concerns,” said Andrew Conway, DMV registration policy chief. “People get nervous about that kind of thing.”

It’s a frustrating cycle, Chan said. On one hand, the city knows placard fraud is most likely to happen downtown where there’s a higher concentration of workers.

But drivers continue scamming the system. And parking officials can only resort to using the undercover task force or leaving flyers on drivers’ windshields that warn about the penalties for using the placards illegally.

“We do what we can to reach out to the recipients of our products, but we’re not interested in micromanaging people,” said Conway from the DMV. “We try to play our role, and we try to reach out with the information we have.”