Police on Tuesday launched an unprecedented sweep across the Loop to catch disabled-parking abusers and found that one of every five drivers was breaking the law.
The 21 officers checked 54 motorists with disability tags who parked for free in metered spots and wound up ticketing ten of them.
Most of those able-bodied drivers were hit with citations that carry fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 under a new city disabled-parking ordinance that took effect Sunday.
The sting – the largest of its kind in recent memory – also illustrated the manpower that’s needed to put a dent in disabled-parking cheating.
That’s sure to fuel the debate in Springfield about whether it’s time for Illinois to end free parking in metered spots for all but a handful of disabled people.
Eighteen officers from the Chicago Police Department and three from the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, most in plainclothes, took part in Tuesday morning’s crackdown.
“I’m certainly glad that the city and the Secretary of State are trying to do something; I’m just not certain that – unless we have a sting once a week – it would be effective” in the long run, said state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park), who is proposing the General Assembly end free parking for all but a small percentage of the 700,000 people statewide who have disability-parking placards and license plates.
Disabled-parking abuse has become a hot-button issue since a series of stories appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in November that showed that, with Chicago’s parking-meter fees rising, more people than ever have been illegally using disabled-parking placards and license plates to cheat the system.
Even though a private company now runs the city’s meters and keeps all meter revenues, Chicago taxpayers still are left to cover the cost of people who use disabled-parking tags to park for free. So far, the city has been billed $13.5 million by Chicago Parking Meters LLC, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to pay because city officials suspect the bill was incorrectly calculated.
“The two sides are still exchanging information, and there is no further update” about that bill, Emanuel spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said in an email.
Meanwhile, the mayor is making it clear he thinks that disabled people should be able to keep parking for free in metered spots. Secretary of State Jesse White, who oversees the distribution of disability placards and plates, concurs.
“It is imperative that we protect those who legitimately require a handicap placard for parking in the city,” Emanuel said in a news release. “The abuse of disability placards is not acceptable under the law or to taxpayers who are being cheated by those who exploit the laws.
“This enforcement effort today sends a clear message that cheating and abuse of placards will not be tolerated in Chicago.”
Police questioned the 54 drivers who parked in metered spots throughout the Loop between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m., with officers ticketing eight drivers who weren’t disabled but were using somebody else’s legitimate placard to attempt to park for free. Police confiscated those eight placards, too.
Two more able-bodies drivers were ticketed for illegally using a car with a legitimately disabled person’s license plate to try to park for free.
Eight of the 10 alleged violators were charged under the new city ordinance and are subject to fines ranging from $500 to $1,000 – similar to the fines that exist under current Illinois law. But, if they’re found guilty, the city will not have to share any of that revenue with the state.
The other two drivers were charged under Illinois law because their cases involved handicapped placards from Indiana and Michigan.
Stiffer penalties for disabled-parking abuse in Chicago went into effect Sunday. The stiffest penalty is for drivers caught by police using fake, stolen or expired disability-parking placards. They now face immediate impoundment of their cars and fines of between $1,500 and $3,000.
Police didn’t find any fake, stolen or expired placards Tuesday, so no cars were towed.