“I’m a caregiver, and I go pick things up.”
“I can barely walk – I’m in pain.”
“I didn’t know.”

These were only some of the excuses Department of Motor Vehicles investigators heard in November when they set up a sting operation in Sacramento to catch drivers abusing the disabled person parking placards.

During that sting operation, more than 10 percent of the drivers whose disabled person parking placards or license plates were reviewed received misdemeanor citations. Citations require offenders to show up in court; fines range from $250 to $1,000.

The November sting operation is part of the DMV’s stepped-up efforts to crack down on placard abuse. An April audit of the agency’s practices found that the benefits of the program “create a significant incentive for misuse.”

Placards allow parking in metered spaces without payment, as well as parking in time-limited spaces for an unlimited amount of time. The audit found that the DMV wasn’t doing nearly enough to combat abuses throughout the system.

The DMV may have approved more than 1 million applications for placards from 2013 to 2016 “without sufficient information to demonstrate that the applicant was qualified,” the audit found, based on a representative sample of approved applications.

When it came to combating the most common type of fraud – in which a driver uses someone else’s valid placard – the audit concluded the DMV’s efforts were inadequate.

“[By] not establishing reasonable goals to conduct regular sting operations, DMV fails to detect and deter as much of the continued placard misuse as it can,” auditors reported.

Catching illegal parking

Investigators chose a crowded Walmart parking lot in Sacramento to track down parking-placard abusers. Near one entrance to the superstore, there were 12 parking spots reserved for people with disabilities, providing ample opportunities to review drivers’ placards.

Placards are portable for a reason, so they can be moved from car to car, depending on which vehicle the person with a disability is a driving. The person with the placard doesn’t have to be the driver – they just have to be in the car when the placard is being used for reserved parking.

When investigators approach, they ask the driver who the placard is assigned to, and then they request the placard and the associated driver’s license. The DMV’s system will tell investigators whether the information on these cards is a match.

Dorothy, one of the drivers who received a citation, was using a placard belonging to her brother. It’s a misdemeanor citation for her; if investigators discover her brother knowingly gave the placard to her to use, it will mean a misdemeanor write-up for him, as well.

“This is going to make life a little bit harder,” Dorothy said, adding that she doesn’t know where she’s going to get the money for the fine. She had a cane with her and said she had mobility issues, though she admitted she hadn’t asked a doctor to sign off on an application for a permit for herself.

“I certainly will after this,” she said. “This is the last thing I need.”

Two of the drivers whose placards were reviewed by investigators were found to have suspended or revoked licenses. These drivers had to wait for a licensed driver to come retrieve their cars. And another driver, who parked in a disabled-parking spot without a placard, was found to have outstanding warrants for petty theft and driving under the influence. He was booked into jail.

“Doing enforcement on the placard side, you see other things,” DMV investigator Dan Cawley said.

Still another driver had outdated registration and insurance. That proved to be the least of his troubles, though – his placard belonged to a person who had died six months earlier. It’s not an isolated issue; the audit revealed that tens of thousands of placards in circulation are assigned to people who are likely dead.

This driver’s excuse? “A friend gave it to me,” he said.

While he wasn’t happy to see the investigators, the people with legitimate placards were more than willing to go through the process of having their IDs checked.

“It gets abused all the time,” one man said. “My wife and myself are handicapped. If there’s no place to park, it means we can’t shop there.”

It’s these people the investigators are trying to help through the crackdown on fraudulent placard use. Since July, DMV investigators statewide have issued a total of more than 1,000 citations in 97 sting operations.