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Fraudulent use of handicapped placards on the rise in LA

The state says fraudulent use of handicapped placards is exploding, costing L.A. revenue and hurting those with disabilities.

March 21, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
It was the start of the business day in downtown Los Angeles' Fashion District on Wednesday. Along almost every street, handicapped placards could be seen hanging from dozens of rearview mirrors.

Some of them were being used legitimately, but many of them were not.

Under California law, a vehicle with a disabled placard can park at any metered parking space without paying for an unlimited amount of time. The idea is give easy access to those suffering from legitimate disabilities. However, according to state officials, the amount of people who are using the placards fraudulently is exploding, costing the city much-needed revenue while denying access to those with real disabilities.

Jose Martinez, an investigator with the Department of Motor Vehicles, was part of a sting operation downtown targeting drivers who use the placards illegally.

"These are placards that individuals have in their possession, and they are not issued to them or registered to their names," Martinez said.

The placards can be transferred from one vehicle to another. But the placard holder has to be in the vehicle, otherwise the drivers are issued a citation and their placard is confiscated.

In many cases, Martinez said people will use a relative's placard as a free long-term parking pass.

"We do have individuals who tell us that the (handicapped) person is at home, the person is not present, so it's obviously being misused," Martinez said.

Merchants complain that the abusers use up all the available curbside parking that's designed for short-term use.

On this Wednesday in downtown L.A., several investigators issued citation after citation. None of the drivers who were cited wanted to explain their actions. A citation for misusing such a placard can lead to a fine of up to $1,000.

Lillibeth Navarro, who helps run an independent living center downtown and is a disability rights advocate, says the misuse of the handicapped placards is a slap in the face to those who really need them.

"That's injustice to those people who really need the placards," Navarro said. "When you thoughtlessly abuse that law meant to serve people with disabilities, then you are abusing disabled people."

The placards are issued by the DMV so long as a person can produce written documentation from a doctor, nurse practitioner, chiropractor or optometrist. Right now, 1 in 10 California drivers are licensed to carry a placard. Navarro said some medical professionals are not asking enough questions when their patients request a placard.

"Doctors have to be partners in implementing the law so that it really serves the people who need these placards," she said.

The state is responding with more undercover sting operations like the one Martinez was on, which focused on two high-priority areas: downtown's Fashion District and Bunker Hill, locations where parking can be expensive and the temptation to abuse the placards proves too strong.

"We need for people to have sensitivity for why those things are needed," Navarro said.

The DMV said it will hold sting operations like the one Martinez was sent on about once a month.

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