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In the parking lot, people have plenty of excuses — and hidden disabilities

Published: July 30, 2012  |  Source: freep.com

A driver zips into a handicap parking space, bounces out of the car and runs inside the store, mall or theater.

Disabled? Yeah, right.

People mutter about it, maybe even offer a few choice words to the seemingly fine driver who’s taking a parking space that a disabled person might desperately need.

There are some parking outlaws who do that. But there also are some situations that are not as they seem.

That’s what the Free Press learned over several weeks of catching drivers parking in handicap spots.

PDF: Complaint letters about misuse of handicap tags

We wanted to know who these people were, appearing to so thoughtlessly use a spot reserved for someone who cannot walk or breathe or see. Who would block a disabled person from being able to shop at the grocery store, browse in the mall or eat at a favorite restaurant?

Reporters and a videographer set out across metro Detroit, visiting shopping malls, grocery stores, pharmacy parking lots and government buildings. The Free Press team waited for apparently able-bodied drivers to park in handicap spaces and then approached, with camera rolling. You can see our video report today at freep.com.

In addition, the Free Press tracked down chronic violators, people with multiple tickets for parking in spots reserved for disabled people.

The results of our surveillance might surprise you.

Yes, we easily found able-bodied drivers parking in handicap spots. In front of Detroit city hall and juvenile court, we watched drivers park in spaces sectioned off with blue curbs and blue signs, then move their vehicles when we asked questions.

One able-bodied woman parked in a handicap space one Saturday outside Nordstrom at the Somerset Collection in Troy. She grew defiant after reporters approached. She admitted that her disabled child wasn’t with her, but then asked: “Are you the police?” before rolling her eyes and driving off in a huff.

No, we replied. But “we might be saving you a $100 ticket.” It is illegal to use a permit when the disabled person is not in your vehicle.

There were drivers who wanted to dash in, then come right back out, thinking their actions were harmless. There were others who really put some work into parking illegally, by somehow obtaining another person’s permit. That’s fraud, punishable by up to a $500 fine and a month in jail.

But there also was an important lesson we learned out there on the streets: There are drivers and passengers who look able-bodied, but in reality, are legally blind. Or have suffered a series of strokes. Or actually do have a permit but forgot to hang it.

What the Free Press found

• Able-bodied drivers freely take up spaces, many while using other people’s handicap placards or plates.

• Police in metro Detroit don’t often ticket for such fraud. Some communities leave ticket writing to civilians and volunteers, who generally are not permitted to access law-enforcement data to check handicap permits for fraudulent use.

• The Michigan Department of State issues handicap permits. Last October, it began tracking when permit holders die. Placards are supposed to be surrendered, but an untold number of family and friends of deceased people continue to use them.

• Unlike Florida, Michigan does not track medical professionals who sign handicap permit applications.

• Unlike in other states, permit-holders in Michigan do not have to provide the state with periodic medical updates.

• The number of handicap plates in Michigan has surged.

• Placards, hung from rearview mirrors, are easily tampered with because the expiration date is handwritten. A 2013 expiration date can become 2018 with the stroke of a Sharpie.

• Michigan’s fines for handicap parking violations are lower than in some states; chronic violators are not singled out for harsher penalties.

We heard lots of stories. Here are some of them

By Jim Schaefer and Jennifer Dixon
Detroit Free Press Staff Writers
Contact Jim Schaefer: 313-223-4542 and Jennifer Dixon: 313-223-4410

Read Part 1 of this series

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