Alarmed by the flagrant abuse by drivers using someone else’s disabled placard to get free street parking, authorities launched an undercover sting to catch meter cheaters.
Prompted by a February, NBC Bay Area investigation, Oakland police and parking enforcement officers teamed up with investigators from the Department of Motor Vehicles to form a task force of 17 officers looking to catch blue placard abusers red-handed.
In four hours on a recent weekday, officers approached 70 drivers and confiscated 13 placards that were illegally displayed.
DMV investigator Calvin Woo said, “They know they’re misusing [it]. It’s just so blatant.”
Disabled parking fraud costs Bay Area cities hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in lost parking meter revenue. Using someone else’s disabled placard can also be charged as a misdemeanor crime. If found guilty, abusers face up to $1,000 in fines and up to 6 months in jail.
But as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit first uncovered in February, these stiff penalties didn’t stop some Alameda County workers from cheating the system and by using someone else’s placard to park for free while they worked.
Click here to see original investigation
The task force targeted several hot spots in downtown Oakland near the AT&T and Kaiser high rise buildings.
“What we are seeing is a lot of the employees that work in this area are using placards illegally to park all day while they are at work,” Woo said.
One of the local workers ticketed was a man wearing a badge identifying him as a Kaiser Permanente PhD. Investigators confiscated the man’s placard, on Broadway and 21st, after discovering that it belonged to his mother. They say she died several months ago.
Not all of the drivers ticketed were in the area on business. Just down the road on 21st and Webster streets, officers cited a man for displaying his grandmother’s placard while he worked out at 24 Hour Fitness.
Both men declined to comment when NBC Bay Area asked why they were using the placards. Others, however, were eager to offer up an excuse.
NBC Bay Area spotted one man displaying a placard while he worked up a sweat running around Lake Merritt.
Was he using someone else's placard to park for free?
“That is not true,” the runner defiantly answered. However, he later admitted that the placard belonged to his sister. He claimed he dropped her off at the gym so she could work out before walking half a mile to work. Her placard was seized and his explanation raised a red flag for DMV investigators.
“If she can walk half a mile and workout at the gym, we are going to be questioning the validity of the disability too,” said Woo.
While it can be argued that the free metered parking is a major driver for placard fraud, the DMV says it’s a benefit accorded to the disabled in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA was designed to provide equal access to the disabled when it comes to street parking. Blue zones are free and unmetered. So if one is already taken, the idea is that a disabled person should be able to park in the next available space without having to pay.
DMV hopes that word will spread about undercover stings like these, which will help prevent future placard abuse.
It’s a tactic that seems to work. When the Investigative Unit returned to the scene where we first exposed Alameda county workers abusing placards in Oakland, their cars were nowhere in sight.
Drivers with disabilities say they appreciate the crackdown and wish they happened more frequently.
“This is the first time I’ve been approached” one driver told NBC Bay Area after officers confirmed her placard. She says he has been using a placard for three years. “I think it’s good because there’s a lot of people that are abusing it.”
One in ten Californians now has a disabled parking placard. Nearly one out of every five drivers approached by an officer was misusing a placard. Woo says that’s about the same rate of placard fraud statewide.
“Oakland parking enforcement and OPD has expressed interest in continuing this partnership which is very good I’m happy you guys brought this to us,’ Woo said.
DMV says its new task force with the city of Oakland has already identified several areas for their next sting however; they encourage tips from the public on places that are potential hot spots for placard abuse.
If you see abuse, the DMV says try to get a detailed description or photo of the driver, the license plate, and the location. Click here to report disabled parking placard abuse.
Or you can email the Investigative Unit: TheUnit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS (8477)