Woman charged in Harford parking incident

Car using space for disabled blocked at Bel Air bagel store

July 22, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Linda Shepard-Gebhart says she took a stand for those who can't -- and is in big trouble because of it.

Gebhart, 49, has been charged with disturbing the peace and false imprisonment after blocking the car of a driver who parked illegally in a handicapped space. The Harford County woman is facing an Aug. 6 hearing, with the possibility of 60 days or more in jail and a $500 fine, after what she says was an attempt to stop the misuse of parking spaces for the disabled.

"This whole thing is idiotic as far as I am concerned," said Gebhart, who lives in Churchville. "Thinking, as I idiotically did, that there was such a thing as a citizen's arrest for a traffic violation. I guess I missed that episode of `Law & Order.' "

Officials say Gebhart's actions were more akin to road rage than activism and they were obliged to press charges.

"We don't want situations like this getting out of control," said Bel Air Police Chief Leo F. Matrangola, whose department issues more than 100 citations a year for illegal parking in handicapped spaces. "Ms. Gebhart is just as much at fault by trying to take the law into her own hands."

The incident began the morning of May 13 at the Bagel Works on Churchville Road.

Gebhart said she was on her way into the store when she noticed a car parked in front, in a space reserved for the disabled.

"There was no parking permit or tag displayed that I could see," Gebhart said. "I parked my car so the driver couldn't leave, and I went to the phone right near the store's entrance and called the police."

The driver, Gay Joyce Smithson, emerged from the store clutching her plain bagel and coffee.

Smithson said she was only in the store briefly and that as she left, Gebhart yelled at her, " `I don't see any handicapped tags on your car.' "

"She was outside screaming that she wasn't moving until the police came," said Smithson, who added that she was partially parked in the handicapped space and partially in a no-parking area. "I was definitely in the wrong for parking there, but she shouldn't have blocked me in and detained me for so long."

A crowd gathered and rallied to Smithson's defense, but Gebhart refused to move.

Smithson said a driver parked next to her moved and she was able to leave.

An officer responding to Gebhart's call then pulled into a handicapped space -- further angering Gebhart.

"I am so passionate about this issue because my father suffers from arthritis and is disabled," Gebhart said. "It bothers me that people fail to recognize how fortunate they are to be able to walk, and then they turn around and have such resentment towards the people who are entitled to those spaces."

Smithson, a driver for the John Archer School, which educates disabled students in Harford County, said she is sensitive to the needs of the handicapped.

Police later gave her a citation, which Smithson said she is willing to pay.

"I was so embarrassed when it happened, and I just wanted to get out of there," recalled Smithson, who said she contacted the police once she left the store. "But you can't imagine how frightening it is to have this person blocking you in and yelling at you."

Gebhart and Smithson say that parking near the store is scarce.

Wayne Carter, executive director of the Delaware-Maryland Paralyzed Veterans Association, said his organization has joined the Maryland Department of Transportation in a campaign called "Sixty Seconds Too Long," which is aimed at stopping illegal parking in handicapped spaces.

"For an able-bodied individual to take the initiative and complain is rare," said Carter, whose organization has 300 members.

"Disabled parking is one of the biggest issues there is [for disabled people], and we hear a thousand times a day, `I'll just be a minute,' but when you are handicapped and need to park, 60 seconds is too long."

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