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Law sparked by Sun-Times series to crack down on disability parking abuse

Disabled-parking cheating 'is just plawrong' Gov. PQuinn said during news conference Monday.

Disabled-parking cheating "is just plain wrong," Gov. Pat Quinn said during a news conference Monday.

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Updated: August 25, 2012 6:09AM

Come 2014, able-bodied drivers will have a tougher time using disabled-parking placards to cheat meters and park for free, under legislation Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Monday.

Among those flanking the governor as he signed the bill was state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park), who drafted the measure in response to the Chicago Sun-Times’ “Meter Cheaters” investigation last year.

The Sun-Times found that, within Chicago, the disability-parking system is widely abused, with able-bodied drivers using relatives’ placards, fake placards and even stolen placards to park for free in metered spots.

“I read this, and it kind of made my blood boil,” May said of the newspaper’s reports. “This series pointed out that perhaps the reason people are cheating so much is because they get free parking. So as parking rates have gone up, mostly in the city of Chicago, they would cheat and they would park there all day long.”

“For anyone to try and take access to those areas . . . who doesn’t have a disability is just plain wrong,” Quinn said.

The law May sponsored increases the initial fine for unauthorized use of a disabled-parking placard from $500 to $600 and doubles the fine for people caught creating or possessing fake placards to $1,000. Those and other stiffer penalties take effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2014, the law ends the “full parking meter fee exemption” for some 600,000 Illinoisans who have disability placards and another 82,000 who have disability license plates or veterans’ plates. After that, only people who have a special “meter-exempt” placard will be allowed to park free.

To get meter-exempt placards, people will have to submit forms signed by their doctors to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s office that verify they are physically unable to access or operate parking meters. People with existing placards will be allowed to park in handicapped-only spots in parking lots — but not in metered zones.

The law sets 2014 for implementation because that’s the expiration year for most disabled-parking placards statewide. People who have placards must re-apply for them every four years. A new application that takes into account the meter-exempt placards should be ready early next year.

Under the meter-privatization deal approved in Chicago in 2008, city taxpayers must reimburse the private company that operates the meter system for any free parking it provides to people displaying disability placards or plates. The meter company has submitted $35.5 million in bills for that so far.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is refusing to pay those bills, arguing the formula used to compute them is flawed. Emanuel has also acknowledged that fraud is a major reason those bills are so high.

The new law, which Emanuel and White helped push through Springfield, is designed to allow only wheelchair users and others who have severe disabilities to park for free in metered spots. That will “absolutely” cut the amount of free parking the meter company must provide, Emanuel has said.

Last year, the Sun-Times worked with retired Chicago police Lt. Robert Angone — whose daughter, Michael, 20, lost her left leg to cancer when she was 6 months old — to document the growing number of people using disability parking tags to park for free. Angone and his daughter attended Monday’s bill signing.

A separate bill, drafted by state Rep. John D’Amico (D-Chicago), that Quinn also signed into law Monday, sets tougher penalties for people caught using a deceased person’s placard to park in handicapped-only spots.

Both laws send a strong message, according to White: “If you don’t belong there, don’t park there,” he said.

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