Barbara Montgomery has chronic obstructive lung disease, deformed feet from diabetes, a Georgia permit that gives her special parking privileges and a gripe with the city of Augusta.
While taking her great-grandsons to Augusta Mall recently, the 69-year-old struggled to walk up the ramp from her handicapped parking spot.
Behind her was a more level handicapped parking spot, with wide access aisles.
However, that spot, next to two spaces for the “Richmond County Sheriff’s Department only,” was taken by an Isuzu Rodeo that had neither a handicapped license plate nor a placard visible.
“It can be hard to find a quality spot,” said Montgomery, who is diagnosed with a condition that weakens the foot to the point where its bones can fracture and eventually change shape.
“I respect the rules and am appreciative of the privileges I have, but not everyone does and to my knowledge, not many officers enforce the laws,” Montgomery said.
An investigation by The Augusta Chronicle found that enforcement of the state law for handicapped parking is lax, at best, in Richmond County.
Since 2011, the sheriff’s office has ticketed only 28 people for handicapped parking violations. In the same period in Columbia County, 1,750 violators have been cited. The Savannah, Ga., Metro Police Department, which has a coverage area comparable in size to Augusta, issued 3,238 tickets in that time.
Richmond and Columbia counties deputies follow the same ticket-writing procedures, have similar sized coverage areas – 306 square miles versus 308 square miles – and for the most part, share a population base that tops 330,000 people.
However, Columbia County puts an emphasis on enforcing the handicapped parking law. The sheriff’s office has 10 beat officers and an eight-deputy bike patrol that regularly patrols parking lots – mostly in Evans and Martinez – to ensure that vehicles in handicapped spaces have placards or disability license plates, Capt. Steve Morris said.
In Richmond County, officers typically write tickets only if they see a violation, either through their own observations or from a resident’s complaint.
Sgt. Shane McDaniel, an office spokesman, said a downtown patrol focuses on handicapped parking laws among other violations, and some citations are filed directly with state court. However, Richmond County clerks said all records of handicapped parking violations are kept by the sheriff’s office.
McDaniel and Morris declined to elaborate about the disparity in tickets, saying they did not want to compare enforcement practices.
Stephanie Brice, 27, of Clarks Hill, said the proactive policing in Columbia County, where she spends the majority of her time shopping, has motivated customers to help keep people from abusing the law.
She said she frequently approaches bike deputies to point out potential lawbreakers. The tips helped lead officers to ticket a teenager using his grandmother’s permit to park closer to Wal-Mart.
“They’ll give you a ticket,” said Brice, who has had a handicapped permit since 2008, the year she had her first of five surgeries. “They mean business.”
She said she nearly got a ticket when she forgot to hang her placard from her rearview mirror.
RESIDENTS CAN APPLY for a handicapped license plate, a placard or both. There is no extra cost for a handicapped plate.
Applying involves filling out a “Disabled Person’s Parking Affidavit,” said Nick Genesi, the communications director for the Georgia Department of Revenue.
He said Georgia does not track the deaths of permit holders, and an applicant doesn’t need a doctor’s note to receive a permit. However, if a permit holder dies, surviving family members are required to surrender permits. For temporary badges, applicants must provide medical updates every six months to keep their privileges.
According to the state’s traffic code, it is unlawful for any person to “stop, stand or park any vehicle in a parking place for persons with disabilities” unless it has a valid parking permit displayed.
An offender can face up to a $500 fine. Ken Shiotani, a senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, said that is not enough to stop widespread abuse.
Shiotani said the most common complaint is about authorities not enforcing parking laws. He said most law enforcement agencies enforce handicapped parking laws only when there’s a complaint.
“I don’t think they go out of their way to enforce handicapped parking rules until they get pressure from citizens complaining of not being able to find spaces because of people abusing the system,” Shiotani said.
With the holiday season approaching, McDaniel said he expects deputies to receive more complaints, but that does not mean parking abuse is a growing problem in Richmond County.
“When it comes to a person who is handicapped, they have the right to park closer and we have the responsibility to investigate each and every violation,” he said. “It’s our job and we take it seriously because it involves a person’s health and welfare.”
McDaniel said it’s not uncommon for a road deputy to get a call from someone upset about an
able-bodied person parking in a handicap area, but the violator is often gone by the time an officer arrives.
TO GET AN IDEA of the extent of this problem, a Chronicle reporter and photographer visited parking lots across metro Augusta recently in search of violators.
They were not hard to find.
At a Tobacco Road barber shop, a young woman sprang out of a Mercedes-Benz after parking illegally in a handicapped spot. When she returned 30 minutes later, she confessed that she shouldn’t have parked there.
At Wal-Mart on Bobby Jones Expressway, an older man in a late-model pickup parked illegally in a handicapped space while a relative ran inside to buy a few items. When the reporter and photographer spotted him, he moved his vehicle.
Outside the Sears Auto Center at Augusta Mall, a NASCAR fan parked his unpermitted GMC Sierra in a handicapped spot, fewer than 10 yards from an empty space.
“It’s a law for a reason,” said former Army Pfc. Jeremiah Butler, 30, who – because of the illegally parked Sierra – had to squeeze his wheelchair-lift-enabled van into a spot two spaces down. He barely had enough room to get out.
“I definitely think more awareness is needed,” said Butler, who bruised his spinal cord during an altercation with another soldier and now must use a wheelchair. “The laws are only enforced as long as someone is there to enforce them, which is not regularly.”