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Thousands of handicap-parking placards, dozens of scams

REPORTING ABUSE

Handicap-parking complaints can be filed with the Illinois Secretary of State’s Office online at cyberdriveillinois.com. Click on “Parking Program for Persons with Disabilities Abuse Complaint Form.”

PENALTIES

†People caught using handicap placards or handicap license plates without the placard- or plate-holder present face a fine of at least $500 and a 30-day driver’s license suspension. The police also can confiscate illegally used placards.

†Doctors who make false statements to help someone obtain a handicap plate or placard face fines of up to $1,000.

†People caught altering placards; manufacturing fakes; using fake, lost or stolen placards; or selling real or fake placards could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by jail time, fines of up to $2,500 and a one-year driver’s license suspension.

MORE ONLINE

See Sun-Times video of able-bodied people using handicap placards and read Part 1 of this series at suntimes.com.

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Updated: December 15, 2011 9:47AM



Throughout Cook County, there’s one handicap placard in circulation for every 13 passenger vehicles.

And with parking-meter rates escalating throughout Chicago, the incentive for able-bodied drivers to use one of those placards to park for free in metered spots can sometimes be too hard to resist, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation found.

With the help of a retired Chicago Police Department lieutenant, the newspaper did regular spot checks in the South Loop and elsewhere in the city.

In September and October, those checks found as many as 60 cars with handicap placards or handicap license plates were parking for free each day in the area bounded by Roosevelt Road and Van Buren Street, and Desplaines Street and Canal Street.

That number decreased this month — after the Sun-Times began videotaping seemingly able-bodied people who had handicap placards and parked for free.

A Sun-Times reporter, videographer and photographer began watching the neighborhood based on research by retired police Lt. Robert Angone, whose 19-year-old daughter lost her left leg to cancer when she was just 6 months old. In September and October, Angone observed 82 instances in which seemingly able-bodied people used handicap placards or handicap license plates to park throughout the South Loop, around the Cook County Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California and at other various spots.

In most of those cases, drivers used placards or plates to park for free on the street, where they otherwise would have to use a kiosk to pay to park. In a handful of cases, Angone documented drivers using placards to park free at handicap-only spots in lots.

Statewide, 600,000 handicap placards are in circulation — 9-by-4-inch cards that are hung from rear-view mirrors and can easily be transferred from car to car. The placards are free — though there’s a $10 fee to replace one if it’s lost, damaged or stolen.

Another 82,050 Illinois cars, SUVs and trucks have handicap license plates.

A total of 204,787 of all handicap placards statewide belong to Cook County residents — a placard for every 13 passenger vehicles (car, SUV or truck) countywide. Another 38,981 vehicles in Cook County have handicap plates.

Besides legitimate placards, there’s also an unknown number of fraudulent ones — despite the Illinois Secretary of State Office’s efforts to incorporate foil and holograms into placard designs to make them more difficult to duplicate or alter to extend expiration.

State law long has allowed disabled people to park free all day in metered spots — something that dates back to when public transportation wasn’t handicap-accessible and meters had to be fed with coins.

Among the most common abuses in Chicago is an able-bodied person using a relative’s placard.

That was the case with Sierra Carter, a 21-year-old intern with Northern Trust Corp. who Angone observed parking her 2010 Nissan Altima for free “numerous times” on Canal Street and walking to and from the corporation’s South Loop offices. The placard she’d been using belongs to her grandmother, who wasn’t with her on any of the occasions the retired cop spotted her.

Carter, a college student, hasn’t been reachable since the Sun-Times videotaped her on Nov. 1. Her father, Theodore Carter, said his daughter had driven his mother around that morning and “accidentally” left the placard in the car because she was late to work. Other than saying that much, he referred any questions to a lawyer who declined to comment.

In some cases, out-of-state handicap placards were spotted in the South Loop and being used to park for free. For instance, Angone observed Schereina Howton, 32, using a New York state placard to repeatedly park her 2009 Chevrolet Malibu sedan on weekdays along West Congress Parkway.

Her car is registered to an Oak Park address, though. And she’s had an Illinois driver’s license since at least August 2007, records show.

Unless she was transporting a disabled person from New York, using the New York handicap placard to park for free would appear to be a violation of Illinois law, which requires disabled Illinois residents to have Illinois placards or plates in order to be entitled to free-parking privileges.

When the Sun-Times taped Howton on Nov. 1, she was alone and walked about a block to an office building. Reached later by phone, Howton asked a reporter, “How did you get my number?” After that, she said: “I would appreciate it if you don’t call it. Thank you.” Then, she hung up.

Also on West Congress, a 2003 Toyota Highlander was parked for free using a placard that appeared to be from Texas. The SUV had Illinois plates, though.

The Sun-Times taped a woman leaving the Toyota by herself on the morning of Nov. 1. What appeared to be the same woman returned to the vicinity of the Highlander that evening along with another woman. Both denied that the SUV was theirs.

The women walked away when a reporter told them he was working on a story about handicap parking.

But video footage shows that one of the women who denied that the Highlander was her car looks exactly like the woman who’d parked it there that morning, though she was wearing workout clothes in the evening.

The Sun-Times left a note on the SUV asking the driver to call, but no one did.

The Toyota is registered to a 49-year-old South Side woman, Cynthia P. Wood, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Contributing: Art Golab



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