Richmond County's handicap parking enforcement lags behind Columbia County

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.”

Some Augusta handicapped parking breaks rules
DO YOU KNOW THE LAW?

It is unlawful for any person in Georgia or South Carolina to stop, stand or park any vehicle in a parking place for persons with disabilities unless there is displayed on the driver’s side of the dashboard or hung from the rearview mirror of the parked vehicle a valid unexpired parking permit for persons with disabilities or unless there is attached to the vehicle a specially designated license plate for disabled veterans or other disabled persons.

The penalty is a $100 to $500 fine in Georgia; $100 to $750 in South Carolina.

 

HANDICAP TICKETS FILED

 201120122013
Richmond County9910
Columbia County579392779
Aiken County14914
Savannah, Ga.1,3101,183745

 

Sources: Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Columbia County Magistrate Court, Aiken Department of Public Safety, Savannah police

IN AIKEN

Sgt. Matthew Braxton, the community service supervisor at the Aiken Department of Public Safety, said handicapped parking enforcement is a responsibility of all staff and, usually, citations are written based on complaints and officer observations.

Local records show the department has written 37 tickets in the past three years – nine more than Richmond County – while the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles has 2,848 handicapped permits in circulation in Aiken County.

He said generally his staff does not spot a violator by sight but by matching a handicapped license plate or placard to the vehicle’s registration.

“Abuse of handicapped parking laws is not something that occurs every day, but it happens sometimes,” Braxton said. “This is a law I have enforced for 20 to 30 years. It’s pretty cut and dry.”

– Wesley Brown,
staff writer

LOCAL PERMITS ISSUED

PERMANENT PERMITS

 201120122013Total
Richmond3,4853,5002,1709,155
Columbia1,6231,7991,0544,476

 

TEMPORARY PERMITS

 201120122013Total
Richmond4864853271,298
Columbia3603872571,004

 

Source: Georgia Department of Revenue

 

Note: Aiken County has 2,848 plates and placards in circulation. South Carolina records do not break down permits by year or status.

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