Why Police Aren’t Ticketing Violators in Handicap Accessible Parking Spaces

Few things are more frustrating for wheelchair users and others with physical disabilities than not being able to find an accessible parking space. It’s even more upsetting when we discover that a non-disabled person has parked illegally in one of these spaces that we so desperately need. So, you can imagine my anger when I recently discovered that some of these designated spaces are not legally enforceable in some US communities, and local law enforcement is not ticketing offenders. As such, non-disabled people are frequently parking in these accessible spaces without consequence.

To provide you with some context, on July 13, 2018, I took my kids to the last day of their week-long summer day camp at a local church. The parking area isn’t huge, and there aren’t individual paved spaces; just two rows of grass where cars can park. However, there are four paved accessible parking spaces directly in front of the church, two on either side of the curbed entrance to the church. There is an access aisle between each pair of spaces, and all four have the blue painted wheelchair symbol and a standard DOT metal sign indicating violators will be fined $250 for parking there. Normally the parking lot is empty except for a dozen or so parents (like me) dropping their kids off. I was surprised that on that morning, three of the four accessible spaces were occupied and there were several other cars parked along the edge of the driveways.

handicap accessible parking violation

After parking in the only available accessible space, I noticed that the other three cars belonged to church volunteers who were doing some landscaping work in front of the spaces. It was clear they had parked there for the convenience of unloading landscaping equipment and supplies. I approached one of the individuals who had parked illegally (or so I thought) and politely asked him (twice) to please not park there. He said, Okay. I returned to my car a few minutes later after dropping my kids off, and no one was moving their cars; they had just gone back to work. I left my space and parked elsewhere so I could call the church and ask them to make sure the cars were moved. No one answered after two phone calls, and I couldn’t leave a voicemail. So I reverted to a last-resort action and called the local sheriff’s office. They assured me they would send a deputy to the church to investigate.

I hadn’t planned to follow up, and felt satisfied that I had done everything I could. That was until I got a Facebook message from the individual I spoke to and asked to move the cars. I won’t go into the long list of excuses and justifications he gave me for parking in those spaces, but he did tell me something very disturbing. He said the sheriff’s deputy did come to the church. However, the deputy told him those marked accessible spaces were “not legally enforceable,” and the only thing the deputy could do was charge the car owners with trespassing if that’s what the church wanted. So in essence, nothing happened, and the car owners were left alone.

I couldn’t understand how local law enforcement couldn’t actually enforce what appeared to be a clear parking violation (and for the record, I am fully aware that churches are exempt from accessibility laws). So I set off on a mission to find some answers. My first stop was the text of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to see what it had to say about accessible parking spaces.

The ADA has requirements for the availability of accessible parking spaces based on the size of the lot. The bigger the parking lot, the more marked spaces it needs to have. Furthermore, one of every six accessible parking spaces, or fraction of six, must be “van-accessible.” For example: A parking lot with 400 total spaces needs eight accessible spaces, and two of those eight spaces must be van-accessible. By these standards, the church in question met the ADA requirements for four accessible spaces (assuming it had space for a total of 76-100 cars in its lot. The ADA also says access aisles must be marked (e.g., painted with hatch marks) to discourage parking in them, and accessible parking spaces must be identified by signs that include the International Symbol of Accessibility. These requirements were all met, and to any observer would indicate that these were legally enforceable accessible parking spaces. Many state and local governments have their own requirements, which may be more specific or more stringent – but not less so.

The ADA requirements didn’t help explain why these spaces wouldn’t be legally enforceable, so I consulted my ADA attorney. I explained the situation, and he replied that he didn’t have an explanation, other than the city or county might have a local ordinance under which local law enforcement operates, and somehow those spaces didn’t conform to the requirements of the ordinance.

My next – and final – stop was the Sheriff’s office. I sent them a message asking why those four accessible parking spaces weren’t enforceable. I haven’t heard back from them yet (and will update this post when I do), but I have a feeling this is what they’re going to tell me.

If local property and business owners don’t follow the requirements for markings and signage under the Department of Transportation’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), then law enforcement agencies can’t write tickets for violations because the spaces are technically non-compliant. In 2013, some residents of Athens, Ohio were getting very frustrated because local law enforcement couldn’t do anything to punish non-disabled people parking in accessible parking spaces. The Athens Disabilities Commission had been on a mission to educate local property owners (including Ohio University) about how many of their handicap parking signs were not up to standards. This, the commission discovered, was because some private property owners had posted signs that did not meet standards set up through the Manual.

The Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said that all city spaces are marked correctly and are enforced. However, “Private property spaces are a different story. though,” he said. “Few businesses have them marked correctly so we don’t do a lot of enforcement on private property.” Pyle said he knows of no requirement for private property owners to mark spaces properly, so his department is not able to compel them to do so. At the time this article was published in 2013, about 90 percent of the accessible parking spots at Ohio University were largely marked incorrectly, rendering them “unenforceable.”

If the police were to cite someone who’s parked in an improperly marked spot, the ticket wouldn’t be enforceable in municipal court. Under the MUTCD, blue-and-white signs are for informational purposes only, so even though many have a $250 fine marked on them, they are not enforceable. My only assumption in my personal situation is that the signage for those four accessible spots at the church is not in compliance with the MUTCD.

It’s bad enough that we have to fight for accessible parking. But now we have no legal recourse for people who park in marked accessible spots because the business or property owner didn’t know or care to bring the signage and other markings into compliance. What I encourage you to do is familiarize yourself with the legal accessible parking signage based on your state of residence, and to help educate business owners about the need to be in compliance. It’s a nightmare that this is one more obstacle we have to face in our battle for equal rights and equal access. However, recognizing and understanding the problem is the first step towards eliminating it.

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  1. Kit

    If the spaces are not compliant, then the property is not in compliance with the ADA, right? Couldn’t a disabled person file a complaint regarding that? (I understand that the church gets a pass, but businesses and other public accommodations.)

    1. You could complain to the property owner for not being in compliance with the ADA, but you may have to file a lawsuit for the change to actually be made. It sucks because it puts the burden of ensuring businesses are compliant on US – not the police or the business.

    2. Mark

      Churches may be exempted from ADA, but they are not from the building codes. Depending on when the building was built it would be required to have legal handicapped spots according to ICC or NFPA codes.

  2. John Counsel

    In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (federal) has an offence for Denial of Access to Premises. The DDA is enforced by the Australian Human Rights Commission. So a formal complaint lodged against the property owner (including churches) will commence a process involving investigations, hearings, tribunals and bureaucracy and mind-numbing procedures at every stage — with penalties awarded against offenders.

    Once an offender has been through this process, they NEVER want to risk another complaint.

  3. Linda Ingram

    I am begining to think that the ADA is just a bad joke. This “correct sign” business is another loophole that flies in the face of the intentions of the law. It’s a shame that a law is even needed to get people to respect the rights of disabled people.

  4. Mark Santiago

    I am a disabled Vietnam Veteran living in California. I have a DV plate as well as a Placard in the event I need to rent a car to travel. I used to confront individuals but they ALWAYS had an excuse.
    One person suggested to me when you witness a violation of someone parking with no Handicap Identification is to photograph the license plate and where the violation took place. But what to do when a person abuses the use of a Handicap Placard when they are not handicapped? Some people will use the placard of a family member that is disabled.

  5. Liam Roday

    Usually when I see people parked in the walking lines and/or the parking spaces illegally I just toss a road star up under there tire. So far this has worked really well since I never see them parking like that again. You can buy them at Walmart on-line.

  6. Richard Foster

    Did the Sheriff’s Department ever clarify why the didn’t enforce the law? I have a local establishment that the owner, a Psychiatrist, uses the one and only handicap parking space for his personal vehicle. I have called the police several times and they only ask him to move it. They never ticket or enforce Handicap parking laws where I live and I hate it. I’m working on moving soon, buy not soon enough.

  7. JasonT

    We have a very similar situation here in a suburb outside of Atlanta, not only with handicap parking but also within the designated fire lanes immediately in front of a shopping center. While one is restricted to handicap placarded vehicles, the other is clearly off limits except to emergency vehicles during an emergency. However most of these supermarkets have a strip mall beside the market and/or an ATM in front. Folks have made the clear and conscientious decision to park wherever it is convenient for them to conduct their business and law enforcement is not able to do anything about it, citing private property.

    In this area, there are probably a dozen or so public places that have ADA handicap parking, but there are thousands of private businesses with the same requirements. Police may only enforce the law when the property owner demands it. Otherwise they cannot ticket or tow a vehicle for their violation. When I specifically asked about the illegal use of the fire lane, their answer was, “so long as they move their car before the fire Department gets there, it’s not our problem.”

    I have seen similar concerns across the US, but one of the ways that they have been able to enforce it is if the property owner instructs in writing to the local law enforcement agency to enforce and investigate all parking rules. Some agencies such as the ones in my jurisdiction are “not interested in petty issues like supermarket parking enforcement,” but then in past experience they feel that way about most of the laws, not just the petty ones.

  8. Michele W

    Ditto pretty much what you and everyone else has had to say. I have been a very high paraplegic since my late teen years. Quad level injury but regained my arms. Parking has always been an issue. Part of it has to do with doctors just signing off on permits to anyone so their patients are happy and the other is the “all about me attitude” with no concern for another’s need. I lived in North Dakota when I first got injured and while I was in college, the local disabled community had worked with the city to have certain people do citizen enforcement of the handicapped parking. You had to take a picture or two of the vehicle to show it was parked illegally and could put a ticket on it. Now in Florida, the placards are tied to the drivers license and you cannot see the drivers license # on the tag to verify with the person. Honestly, as gun happy as people are now, I do not know that I want to approach someone and ask for their drivers license and the placard. I was told her in Florida when I called the police about someone parking illegally, that it was on the side of the mall managed by the mall owners that they could not do anything. There is another side of the mall where they are responsible for enforcement. Of course, having the proper handicap signage makes a difference as well. If people would just be respectful of other peoples needs it would be great. But as we all know it is not always the case, especially on full parking lot days like during the holidays or bad weather days. Until enforcement is consistent across the country we deal with it the best we can. It sounds like we all experience the same thing no matter where we live. I do not have an answer for it, unfortunately. Wish I had the answer to make it easier for those after me. I have been dealing with it for 35 years now. I have adapted by avoiding certain areas at certain times or all together. It keeps me sane. Otherwise, I would want to scream all the time. Especially being I have a van with a ramp and need the access isle. I have no issue rolling a ways to a store if it is not pouring rain. I just need the dang space to easily get in and out of my van.

  9. Wayne

    The Sierra Vista, AZ police do not enforce handicap parking zones according to a statement made by ine if their patrol officers on June 5, 2019. No reason why not, they just folliw orders of the chief. This is causing problems concerning keeping the peace.

    1. That’s awful :(.

  10. Ann Rippel

    We live in Myrtle Beach SC. When visitors arrive to our they get placards to put in the front window. These placards show the arrival date and the last day of the visit for the hotel, etc.
    Well, now people are using these hanging placards in the Handicapped Parking Spaces.
    If you drive by quickly, all you see is the placard the colors are different. But it looks legal and the visitor gets to cheat.
    It is a sad situation.

  11. Kay Jackson

    Yep. I found that out years ago. Blue and white signs are not enforceable. Blue, white, and green are, at least in Indiana. Nice loophole! And in Fort Wayne even enforceable signs are not enforced thanks to a mayor who doesn’t care.

  12. lance walker

    i think rhats bad look at uf football stadium, no seats available for the entire year for handicap, and thousands available for non handicap,, and lets not even begin to examine parking

  13. Louis buck

    are handicap parking spaces clearly marked I reported it to the police department and they came and told me it was a landlord issue and even though the same person was given a ticket two days earlier they refuse to ticket him this time telling me it was a landlord issue so while I was waiting for the police he got some black spray paint and spray painted it all the sign on the pavement and remove the handicap sign from the fence I think the police department should enforce the law because it was clearly marked with a sign and on the pavement what should I do

  14. Mark

    Suggestion and something I may begin doing if my local P.D. can’t address this issue, contact the buildings and codes department and have them inspect the handicapped parking on the business to make sure it meets the applicable codes whether NFPA or ICC codes, which are in accordance with the MUTCD. If they are not in accordance with the codes then the business would be made to replace them with legally enforceable signage.

    I saw a sign that allowed new and expectant mothers to park in a handicapped space and because I know the local codes official in that area I sent him a photo and the location and he got that addressed.

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