By KEVIN MCCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
When it comes to parking, society affords disabled drivers some notable privileges.
They receive prime reserved parking spaces and get free parking in public spaces all day, every day.
But an increasing number of able-bodied drivers appear to be abusing those privileges by using disabled windshield placards that are forged, expired or don’t belong to them.
“The dishonesty in people blows me away,” said Toni Guanella, Santa Rosa’s parking supervisor.
To combat the problem, Guanella on Tuesday will ask the City Council to authorize steep new fines — $750 — for people misusing disabled placards.
Currently, city parking enforcement officers who suspect someone is misusing a disabled placard to get free parking can issue a $33 citation, the same fine someone gets when they forget to feed the meter. Fines for illegally parking in a marked handicapped spot are $288.
Criminal penalties of up to $3,500 can apply for multiple offenses, but those must be enforced by police officers through the issuance of misdemeanor citations.
In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law aimed at curtailing placard abuse. It allows local jurisdictions to impose fines of $250 to $1,000.
Last year, there were 2.4 million disabled placards in the state, the equivalent of 11 percent of the 22 million registered vehicles, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. In Sonoma County, there were nearly 32,000 placards, a number that had grown 165 percent since 1994. The county’s population rose 16 percent over the same period.
Over the past six months, Santa Rosa parking enforcement officers have confiscated at least 40 placards suspected of being misused, Guanella said.
The main reason the city wants to clamp down is to free up spaces for people who need them, said Cheryl Woodward, the city’s parking director.
“It’s really intended to deter folks who are deliberately misusing the system and creating problems for folks who are legitimately entitled to use disabled spaces,” Woodward said.
The city also has a financial incentive to limit abuse.
The placards entitle drivers to park not only in prime designated spaces, but also in all metered spaces for free with no restrictions. That means a disabled driver can occupy a spot on the street in front of a downtown office or business all day. The same goes for city garages and surface lots.
If people are misusing those placards, that’s lost revenue for the parking district, though Woodward said that is not the city’s motivation for the new fines.
Often it’s not parking enforcement officers who spot the abuse, but people who resent seeing others game the system.
One typical incident involved a downtown merchant calling to report a woman in her 20s who was in the habit of dashing across the street in high-heels on her way to a salon. The city investigated and found the placard was issued to a man in his 40s. The permit was revoked by DMV over the abuse, Guanella said.
In another incident, a woman told co-workers she drove her husband’s truck to work because its placard meant she didn’t have to pay to park in a city garage. They reported her and the placard was confiscated.
One common abuse occurs when a temporary placard is used after it’s expired. There are two types of placards. One is for people with temporary ailments, such as a broken ankle, and are issued for a duration determined by a health care provider. Placards for people with permanent disabilities are for two years and are automatically renewed.
Offenders have forged placards by changing the dates. Others misappropriate placards after a family member dies, an abuse made possible because the DMV automatically mails renewal placards to the last known address but doesn’t have a system to track deaths, Guanella said.
“They just don’t have any tracking at all for these,” she said.
The fines are appealable through the city process and courts. San Francisco’s fine for the same offense is $935.
Aware that $750 is a stiff penalty for many people, city officials said they will try to separate those who intended to defraud from, for example, an elderly person whose valid permit had recently expired, Guanella said.
“We will have the same philosophy we have on every one of our parking tickets,” she said. “There will be flexibility.”