Capitol Alert

Disabled-placard abusers, it’s your day of reckoning

California’s DMV has a message for motorists using disabled placards to get close-in or free parking: The crackdown is here.

Inspired by a critical audit that found widespread abuse of the program – including thousands of placards in use even though their original owners likely were dead – the department is stepping up enforcement and making sure it gets the public’s attention.

Friday, the DMV announced it had cited 417 people in April for fraudulently using the placards, more than half of the citation total issued in each of the past two fiscal years. Two-thirds of the citations came over three weekends of sun-baked concerts at the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in Indio, where officials cited dozens of people a day as they tried to enter disabled-access parking areas and avoid the long walks and massive traffic jams of the festivals’ main public lots.

“We’re definitely ramping up to publicize it more,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said. The department plans to launch a major public-relations push against abusers in September or October, she said, adding that the Coachella and Stagecoach experiences will likely prompt the department to conduct more stings at large events.

“It means you can get a lot of people as they’re coming in,” Gonzalez said, adding that legitimate placard holders told officers during the Coachella and Stagecoach stings they were glad to see them checking people’s documentation.

Festivalgoers had ample warning of the placard scrutiny in Indio.

The Coachella festival’s website noted that people trying to park in the disabled lot needed to have placard documentation and that IDs would be checked. There also were multiple media reports about the citation surge during the festival’s first weekend.

The April enforcement push came as the DMV learned the findings of a Bureau of State Audits report that identified major shortcomings with the state’s oversight of the disabled parking program, ranging from inadequate vetting of applications to failing to identify and cancel the permits of thousands of placard holders who had died. The report also noted inconsistent enforcement efforts by the DMV as well as the department’s failure to publicize the disabled placard sting operations as a way to deter others.

Gonzalez said the DMV will begin reviewing placard applications more closely with the help of state health boards. Staff also will receive more training on spotting fraud, and the DMV’s 25 district offices will have placard enforcement goals. In addition, the department is setting up an email and telephone number for people to report possible placard abuse; currently, a whistleblower has to mail in a form.

Besides large events, DMV investigators also target fraudulent placard use in parking lots and along city streets. The latter pose a particular challenge, Gonzalez said, because officers have to monitor multiple vehicles for returning drivers and then try to catch them before they pull away.

Last month’s stings also netted placard violators in Fresno, Glendale, Hawthorne, San Diego and Ventura. Officers confiscated the placards, and offenders must appear in court and face fines ranging from $250 to $1,000; if convicted, the misdemeanor crime goes on their driving record.

The audit recommended that the Legislature pass laws giving the department the authority to use a federal death database to identify deceased placard holders and randomly audit applications with the assistance of state health boards.