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Irvine Stalks Parking Spot Scofflaws

September 16, 2002|CHRISTINE HANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the wheel of her blue minivan, Sandra Keshmiri zips into the Irvine Spectrum parking lot and pulls into a handicap space, knowing in the back of her mind that she has no right to take the spot because her mentally disabled daughter is not with her.

But a matinee showing of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" is about to start, and she figures she can shave the minute or two it might take to get to the theater.

"I only do it when I'm late," she explains after being caught red-handed--and red-faced--by a pair of traffic cops.

Irvine is in the midst of a major crackdown that has exposed an ugly truth about a city that prides itself on being a slice of suburban heaven: rampant abuse of handicap parking placards by able-bodied motorists.

Nearly 100 citations have been issued since enforcement began a few weeks ago, and police are finding that one in three placards is misused. They have heard every excuse, and seen it all, including a teenager at a concert who insisted she was her 80-year-old grandmother when caught using the woman's placard; and drivers who believe they have the right to use placards inherited from dead relatives.

"I would have never predicted anything close to what we're getting," said Lt. Tom Hume, commander of the traffic division. "We really need to get this stopped. It's a significant problem."

The crackdown, which Irvine officials hope will become a model for other cities, began as a wager between Irvine Police Chief Mike Berkow and Planning Commissioner Anthony Dragun.

Dragun, 44, was paralyzed in a bodysurfing accident when he was younger and uses a wheelchair.

He and fellow activists agree that Irvine, a bedroom community of 148,000 with a relatively large disabled population, is one of the most progressive cities when it comes to meeting their needs. For example, the city offers a taxi service for disabled people, and because much of the community's development is new, most buildings are handicapped-accessible.

But lately, he and some of his friends noticed that even the clusters of handicapped spaces at shopping centers such as the Spectrum and stores like Costco are often all taken.

Suspecting that parking privileges were widely abused, Dragun bet a skeptical Berkow a cup of coffee that his hunch would check out.

"He thought I was probably exaggerating the case," Dragun said. "What they did find out is that there is a very significant problem indeed--so much so that Chief Berkow now owes me a cup of coffee."

Dragun and other advocates believe some violators park in the spaces to save a few seconds in their fast-paced lives, either unaware or insensitive to the hardship their actions cause. The problem is most severe at the popular shopping centers where even regular spaces are hard to come by.

"Some people just don't care," Dragun said. "But a lot of them don't understand all the ramifications of parking in a handicap spot. So hopefully, this will educate people. They'll realize these spaces serve a really important purpose."

The blue placards are issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles to anyone whose physical disease or disability impairs their mobility.

As of July, more than 1.6 million Californians had been granted placards. They must be renewed every other year, and returned or discarded once a placard-holder dies. Misuse of the placards is a misdemeanor, with violators facing fines of up to $1,500 and other penalties, depending on the jurisdiction.

The DMV does not track citations, and leaves enforcement and prosecutions to municipalities.

The use of handicap spaces by able-bodied drivers is a growing national issue. Some East Coast communities send volunteers to check parking lots, while the Los Angeles Police Department has its own parking-place patrols.

In one high-profile case, 19 UCLA football players were accused in 1999 of lying to the DMV about maladies ranging from asthma to lower back pain to get the placards. Each defendant was ordered to pay $1,485 and perform 200 hours of community service and was placed on two years' probation.

In Irvine, violators caught in the new crackdown are issued a $250 parking ticket and can face additional fines of up to $750.

Kyle Oldoerp, a traffic investigator, and Scott Grange, a parking officer, are in charge of policing the parking lots.

When confronted by officers, some violators are unapologetic, contending they are entitled to use the placards as a reward for ferrying their disabled friends or family members. Others shamefacedly admit their error. A few have claimed they are waiting for a disabled passenger to come out of a restaurant or shop. Oldoerp and Grange simply outwait them.

During sweeps at the Verizon Amphitheatre, a man running late for a David Bowie concert was caught using a placard issued for his son, who has Down syndrome. A teenager attending a Weezer show was caught using her grandmother's placard three months after the woman died. She tried to identify herself as her grandmother, birth date and all.

"So I said 'OK, you're 80 years old?' " Oldoerp recalled with a laugh.

One woman argued that she inherited her husband's parking privileges when he died two years ago. And in one of the ugliest confrontations, a woman at Wild Rivers water park with her son nearly backed her car into Grange.

She insisted the placard was hers even though it was registered to a male with a different last name. At one point, she tried to rip it from Grange's hands.

"Her story changed so many times," Grange said, noting that he had to call two patrol cars for help. "She put her car in reverse and inched back at me. She said 'I don't have time for this.' She got verbally abusive."

Grange and Oldoerp say their goal is to someday find no cheaters at all--because that would mean that people are getting the message.

"It's sad. People who need the handicap spaces are not able to use them because someone's taking advantage of the system. It's unethical. And it gets to the point sometimes of 'How low will you sink?' "

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