A Report on Enforcement of
Handicap Parking Laws in Travis County

Prepared by
Travis County Constable Precinct Five
Bruce Elfant, Constable
May 11, 2006

'The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.'
- Preamble to the Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990


Background

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 required businesses and governmental entities to make accommodations for persons with disabilities in order to provide them with an equal ability to access to businesses, hospitals and educational and governmental institutions. Among the many ADA provisions, establishments considered to be public places were required to allocate a certain number of handicap parking and van unloading spaces and install curb cuts for wheelchair access. The Texas Legislature adopted provisions of the ADA that are contained in Section 681 of the Texas Transportation Code. In doing so, the Legislature directed Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement officers to add handicap-parking enforcement to their other law enforcement duties. Unfortunately but understandably, handicap parking was not considered an enforcement priority and received little attention throughout Texas.

In 1995 the Texas Legislature authorized counties to commission “citizen volunteers” to write handicap parking tickets. That year the Travis County Commissioners Court authorized Constable Precinct Five to establish the first County handicap parking enforcement program in Texas. For the last eleven years Travis County volunteers have written thousands of handicap parking tickets and worked with businesses to help them achieve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Tickets issued by handicap parking volunteers are written to vehicles that are parked in handicap parking spaces, van accessible spaces or are blocking curb cuts for wheelchair access that do not have handicap plates or placards. Handicap parking volunteers are required by State law to attend a four-hour training session on state law and the policies of the program. Handicap Parking Volunteers commissioned by Constable Precinct Five are not peace officers and are not authorized to undertake any actions such as identifying drivers, seizing placards, towing vehicles or making arrests.

Last October the Travis County Commissioners Court funded a deputy constable position for Constable Precinct Five which is the first law enforcement position in Travis County to address handicap-parking abuses that require a law enforcement presence. The Court requested that after six months a progress report be provided that would document whether this effort to enforce handicap-parking laws has been effective.

This report is intended for use by the Commissioners Court, state and local officials and disability advocacy organizations in our continuing efforts to ensure that all persons with disabilities have access to public and private facilities in accordance with the ADA and state law.

Results

During the first six-months of Fiscal Year 2005-06, Handicap Parking Enforcement Volunteers issued 294 tickets and the handicap parking deputy issued 284 tickets for a total of 578 tickets. The majority of tickets were written to vehicles parked in handicap parking spaces that did not have handicap license plates or placards that hang from the rear view mirror. Dozens of tickets were written to vehicles that were parked on diagonal stripes designated for van unloading and vehicles blocking curb cuts. More than 50 tickets were written for misuse of placards.

The process of setting trials, obtaining dismissals, or executing warrants for failure to appear and collecting fine and fees on handicap parking tickets can take from a month to several months from beginning to end. Respondents have up to 30 days to pay or contest handicap-parking tickets from the day they received their ticket. Due to overall case backlogs in some courts, it can take some JP offices 30 days or more to enter tickets into their system. For tickets that have been contested, it may take three months or more for trials to be scheduled. Warrants that are issued for individuals who fail to respond or appear in court may take from days (for some JP offices) to several months for others to be issued, signed and referred to the Constable’s office for execution. A representative for JP Precinct Five stressed that their case backlog has been an ongoing issue and is not due to the volume of handicap parking tickets filed in their court.

Handicap parking tickets experience a higher dismissal rate than for other types of tickets because of the number of tickets written to vehicles where drivers forgot to display their placards. While it is an offense for placards not to be displayed, we do not believe that it is in anyone’s interest for people with legitimate placards to be prosecuted. A process has been established for people who provide a copy of their driver’s license and their placard to get their tickets dismissed.

Tickets written by handicap parking volunteers and the handicap parking deputy for the first six months of FY 2006 (October- March) have generated more than $36,421 in fines and fees to date. Tickets written by the handicap parking deputy account for more than $16,300 of the total fines and fees collected.

In order to arrive at a reasonable estimate for fines and fee revenue generated, the earliest 3 months of the fiscal year (October - December) were reviewed. For this period, 27% of the tickets written by the handicap-parking deputy for October through December have been paid so far for an average of $316 per ticket. Twenty percent of tickets written by handicap parking volunteers have been collected for an average of $299 per ticket. About 76 tickets (58%) remain pending for this three-month period. Based on fines and fees collected from tickets written for the first half of FY 2006, revenue from tickets written by the handicap parking deputy should exceed $66,000 and revenue from tickets written by volunteers will be about $47,000, for a total of more than $113,000. This revenue estimate does not take into consideration any increased collections as a result of the recently established Travis County Collections Program.

Unauthorized Use of Placards

A priority of the deputy constable position was to curb the misuse of handicap parking placards and to determine the extent of handicap parking abuse. In order to determine whether a person using a hang-tag is actually the person to whom it is issued, the handicap parking deputy will identify only those drivers who have no visible disabilities to determine whether they are using their own or another person’s hang tag. People who are found to be using another person’s placard are ticketed and the placards are seized.

Of the tickets issued by the handicap-parking deputy since October, nearly 20% were written for the unauthorized use of placards since October 1. Many individuals ticketed for misuse possessed placards belonging to friends or family members, some of whom were deceased. Several individuals who had hang tags seized were able to obtain replacements from the Tax Assessor Collector’s Office simply by stating that their grandmother or another family member lost his or her placard. One individual has been ticketed three times using 3 different placards that did not belong to her to park at parking meters or in handicap spaces. The Travis County Tax Office is working to enable its computer system to be able to place a hold on the re-issuance of placards that have been seized until the facts can be determined.

A significant number of the handicap parking tickets written in the downtown area were for people who were using other peoples’ hang tags to avoid paying parking meters. Based on our survey of more than 2,000 occupied parking meters in the downtown area, 20% of the vehicles observed parked at meters had handicap parking placards on the windshield. Sixty-five percent of people parked at meters who were identified by the handicap-parking deputy were using placards issued to someone else. Misuse of hang-tangs was most common around the Hobby State Office Building, the Texas Secretary of State’s Office and the area north of the State Capitol complex. We observed a few instances where nearly every metered space on a block was occupied by vehicles with placards. This misuse makes it more difficult for people with disabilities to gain access to downtown government offices and businesses and could be costing the City of Austin hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in lost meter revenue.

City meter personnel are not able to achieve enforcement because when they see empty vehicles with placards parked at meters, they have to assume that those vehicles are legally parked. They, like the handicap-parking volunteers, have no law enforcement authority. Most drivers who use other peoples’ placards believe they incur a very low risk of getting caught.

Alteration of Placards

While it has not been prevalent, we have come across several instances where individuals have altered identification numbers or expiration dates on handicap parking hang tags. Altering placards is a more serious crime and may be prosecuted as a 3rd Degree Felony or a Class A Misdemeanor. We are in the process of filing charges in at least 2 cases.

Illegal Sale of Placards

The sale of handicap parking placards in Texas by anyone other than county tax office personnel is also a crime. Placards are clearly perceived to have some value since this report has documented that they are widely used to avoid paying parking meter fees. We have received numerous reports of placards being sold by individuals at garage sales and flea markets and have even heard of sales on E-Bay. This office has not had the resources to pursue these reports but we hope to be able to do so in the near future.

Impact of Change to Identification Number on Placard

The identification number inscribed on placards has for years been a source of controversy and change. This number is used to determine whether a person who is using a placard is the person to whom it was issued. The Texas Legislature originally directed local tax offices to generate identification numbers on hang tags. That required peace officers attempting to verify placard ownership to have to call the Tax Assessor’s office in the county in which a placard was issued. Since placards could originate in any county and could be used state wide, it was not possible for local officers to quickly confirm to whom a placard was issued. As a result, the misuse of placards was rarely enforced.

At the urging of law enforcement and disability organizations, the Legislature directed local tax offices to put the driver’s license or personal identification number of the person to whom the placard was issued. This change made it possible for law enforcement officers to easily run placards and license plate numbers to determine if both came back to the same person, whether the placard owner was deceased or it was reported stolen.

However, in 2003 the legislature responded to privacy rights issues and re-directed tax assessors to record only the first 4 digits of drivers license numbers followed by the initials of the applicant. As a result, law enforcement officers are no longer able to run placards so for placards issued since 2003, the only means of enforcement is to wait for individuals to return to their vehicles. This change has made enforcement of placards abuse more labor intensive and less common.

Since drivers’ license numbers are a public record and all vehicle license plate numbers are also available to the public, the Legislature should restore the ability for law enforcement to effectively enforce the misuse of placards by restoring the full drivers license or personal identification numbers on placards.

Business Compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act

The Constable Precinct Five Handicap Parking Enforcement Program also works to help businesses understand what they are required to do under the ADA. It has been our experience that the vast majority of Travis County business entities are in full compliance regarding the allocation and marking of handicap parking spaces. Most instances of non-compliance were either because they do not understand how many spaces are required or how they must be designated. The most common problem we have encountered has been spaces that are not designated by upright signs. Handicap parking spaces must be designated by upright signs to be enforceable. During this program’s nearly 11 years of existence, we have worked with hundreds of business entities and a few governmental locations and have received near universal cooperation. Those few establishments that refused to comply with the handicap parking provisions of ADA were referred to Advocacy Inc. for litigation.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Legislature’s efforts to increase enforcement of state handicap parking statutes, handicap-parking violations throughout Travis County continue to be as prevalent as ever. More violators are resorting to using placards that do not belong to them in order to park in handicap parking spaces and parking meters, and some are even being altered and illegally sold. These violators are making it more difficult for people with disabilities to access public places and effective enforcement requires a law enforcement response.

The Travis County Commissioners Court should continue funding for the Constable Precinct Five Handicap Parking Enforcement Program.

The Precinct Five handicap-parking deputy is the only law enforcement officer in Travis County who is specifically trained and assigned to enforce handicap parking laws. It has been shown that this position is needed and that the tickets written by the handicap-parking deputy will generate significantly more than enough revenue to cover the cost of this program.

The City of Austin should consider funding an additional position for the Constable Precinct Five Handicap Parking Program for the specific purpose of curbing parking meter abuses.

This report has documented the widespread misuse of placards at parking meters operated by the City of Austin. Based on the number of vehicles with placards parked at meters and the fact that about 65% have been misused, it is estimated that the City of Austin could be losing hundreds of thousands dollars in meter revenue each year.

Because the abuse of handicap parking spaces is widespread and enforcement (especially misuse of placards) is labor intensive, it is believed that an additional handicap parking enforcement position funded by the City of Austin for Precinct Five would have as much impact as the existing deputy. The specific goal for a City funded position would be to help free up hundreds of meters for people who need them and generate additional meter revenue. Funding an enforcement officer through Precinct Five would cost less than assigning an APD officer to this duty and would likely more than cover the costs from additional meter revenue.

The Texas Legislature should revert back to placing the Texas Drivers License number on handicap parking placards issued by The State of Texas.

The Texas Legislature has encouraged handicap-parking enforcement by authorizing cities and counties to commission citizen volunteers. But they have also made enforcement efforts more difficult by mandating placard identification numbers that cannot be easily confirmed by law enforcement officers and are impossible for volunteers to confirm. Driver’s license numbers are currently a public record (just the same as license plate numbers) and would enable law enforcement officers or volunteers to easily confirm that people using placards are the people to whom the placards are issued.

Upon signing the Americans with Disabilities Act into law, former President George Bush said that 'every man, woman, and child with a disability can now pass through once-closed doors into a bright new era of equality, independence, and freedom.' The ADA clearly has had a profound impact on improving the lives of millions of Americans with disabilities, but access to public places, especially when it comes to parking, continues to be an enforcement challenge. Just as it took years of public education and aggressive enforcement to achieve the goal of equal accommodations under the Civil Rights Act, with continued commitment, our community can come closer realizing former President Bush’s vision of equal access for all Americans.

Resources

ADAPT lobbies for local. State and federal legislative action on behalf of people with disabilities. (512) 442-0252, www.Adapt.org

Advocacy, Inc. is a nonprofit corporation funded by the United States Congress to protect and advocate for the legal rights of people with disabilities in Texas. (512) 454-4816, infoai@advocacyinc.org.

Austin Mayor’s Committee for People with Disabilities encourages, assists and enables persons with disabilities to participate in the social and economic life of the City of Austin, achieve maximum personal independence; become gainfully employed; and enjoy fully and use all public and private facilities available within the community. (512) 974-2292, http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/ada/amcpd.htm.

Disability Assistance of Central Texas – Disability Assistance of Central Texas promotes and supports community inclusion for people with disabilities. (512) 834-1827, dact@dact.org.

Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities provides resources and information on disabilities including committee members and law publications, ADA key laws, goals and recommendations, 2005 disability perspectives, disability history and policy and parking statistics. (800) 843-5789, ccounts@governor.state.tx.us.

Travis County Constable Precinct Five acts on complaints regarding habitual handicap parking violations and designation of parking spaces. (512) 854-9100, www.Constable5.com.