Disabling fraud

By Vanessa Morton

An increase in illegal use of placards to park in spots for the disabled has caused Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration to propose a new ordinance that could help stifle the ongoing activity.

The mayor introduced the ordinance on Nov. 16, during a City Council meeting. The plan would include an increase in fines and penalties to Chicago motorists caught displaying stolen, fraudulent or changed placards.

“The abuse of the disability placards has gone on for far too long,” Emanuel said in a statement. “These reforms are about preserving legal on-street parking for motorists with disabilities, and this ordinance sends a clear message that abuse of placards will not be tolerated in the city of Chicago.”

According to Commissioner Karen Tamley of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, the abuse of disability placards can take several different forms.

She said the abuse usually occurs when someone borrows a placard from the authorized holder without the individual present. Tamley said another common act of abuse is when drivers use placards that are stolen, altered or fake.

Currently under state law, a driver caught illegally using a placard could, on first offense, face a maximum $500 fine and a 30-day automatic administrative driver’s license suspension.

Tamley said the fines currently in place are not a deterrent to the placard violators. She said the ordinance would help. If passed, the ordinance would double the amount of fines, and additional punishments would be implemented.

Specifically, any authorized owner who allows another person to use his or her disability placard illegally would face a $200 fine. Violators who display fake, altered or stolen placards would be subject to fines from $500–$1,000. Additionally, the Chicago Police Department would be authorized to impound vehicles, which would add additional costs.

However, if the driver does not cooperate with the impoundment and is caught driving away, he or she would face an additional $2,000 fine.

“So it definitely increases the fines and penalties, and [adding] the impoundment piece to it is again adding a significant financial penalty, because only getting a ticket is not enough of a deterrent,” Tamley said. “This is really trying to add more tools to our toolbox around law enforcement, [and] also sends a very strong message that we’re not going to tolerate abuse.”

According to Bill Bogdan, the Secretary of State’s disability liaison, the attempt to reduce fraudulent use of disability placards has gone on for quite some time. While he is dedicated to seeing the current problem decrease, he said it isn’t an easy process for law enforcement.

“The parking placards are a little bit tricky for law enforcement to enforce provisions of the program,” he said. “But primarily what we do is wait until an individual parks in an accessible spot, and then when a placard is displayed in the front windshield, the officer will approach the driver of the vehicle and basically inquire about the usage of the placard.”

Tamley said she has seen the issue of abuse dramatically increase during the past several years. While she said she isn’t positive why the number is increasing, she said it is something that has become more flagrant.

“We have just seen a really ongoing abuse of disabled placards and as a city, we want to be able to try to stem the abuse by imposing more financial penalties for individuals that are caught,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen an uptick in the last several years, so it has been something our offices have long been concerned about.”

The trend has become a huge disadvantage to other individuals with disabilities who need access to parking.

“It takes up spaces for people [who] rightfully need those spaces,” Tamley said. “[Ultimately], it limits those rights and opportunities for people [who] are legitimate placard holders and people [who] legitimately have disabilities.”

The proposed ordinance is currently being reviewed by the Committee on Traffic and Public Safety. If the committee passes the ordinance, the full Council will be able to vote on it, which Tamley said would probably happen in early 2012.