Advocates for the disabled say District Court judges need to more strictly enforce the handicapped parking ordinance in Baltimore County, where motorists who challenged tickets during one seven-month period rarely paid a fine.
A study by the county's Office of Finance and Budget showed that most of the people who fought tickets in court between April and November of last year were found not guilty or given probation before judgment.
A separate analysis of court records for the same time period by The Sun found slightly different numbers but the same overall trend: Thirteen percent of those who fought tickets in court were ordered to pay a fine. Of those, 2 percent paid the full $77.
The findings were discussed at a meeting last month of the county's Commission on Disabilities. Members of the executive committee decided to send a letter to the county expressing concern over enforcement of the ordinance, and suggesting that sensitivity training for judges might be appropriate.
"If we take the time to educate them in what to look for, it will help everybody in the long run," said commission Chairwoman Terri Seitz Parrish. "It will let those spaces be available for the people who need them and be less frustrating for the judges."
About two-thirds of motorists who received tickets for parking in spaces reserved for the disabled paid the fine by mail. Judges say most of the rest, who went to court, didn't deserve tickets because they had tags allowing them to park in the marked spaces.
District Judge Barbara R. Jung levied no fine on 70 of the 74 people who challenged their tickets between April and November. She said the only motorists she excuses from the fine are those who prove they had "hang tags" for the disabled that either dropped off their rearview mirrors or weren't properly displayed.
"The only ones I let off are people who come in with valid permits," she said.
But disabled residents and advocates for the disabled say they suspect judges aren't getting the full story. And, they add, even if those who were let go with no fine were innocent, that doesn't explain the reduced fines.
Of 570 District Court cases in Baltimore County over the seven-month period, 13 people paid the full $77 fine and 498 paid no fine. That leaves 59 people who received reduced fines, on average $23 and in some cases as low as $5, the analysis of court records shows.
Bea M. Rodgers, director of the Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities, said no statewide study of the issue has been done, but it appears that the higher a jurisdiction's fine, the more likely people are to contest tickets and the more likely judges are to reduce or waive the fines.
Richard A. Calkins, who handles parking issues for the county's Commission on Disabilities, said that if the courts won't enforce the ordinance, the disabled have nowhere else to turn.
"The [Americans with Disabilities Act] is a civil rights issue, and it needs to be handled in the courts," Calkins said. "If the judges don't enforce it, what's the use?"
But District Judge I. Marshall Seidler said that motorists who fought tickets in court either forgot to hang their handicapped tags from their rearview mirror, or the tags fell off when car doors closed. Seidler did not fine any of the 38 people who appeared before him over the six-month study period.
"Sometimes they'll come in a wheelchair, and it's obvious they're handicapped," he said.
Jung said there are some who come before her who are clearly guilty, and they are dealt with harshly.
"If it's a person who shouldn't park there, I find them guilty and I give them the maximum fine," she said.
All three people she found guilty paid the full $77.
Rodgers said that in her contacts with people with disabilities, no one has mentioned the problem of tags falling off rearview mirrors.
"I don't know who would use the excuse that their tag fell off," she said. "They're pretty sturdy."
Parrish said she suspects judges are being misled by the people who appear before them. In Maryland, people who need to park in spaces set aside for the disabled are issued a tag that hangs from the rearview mirror and a certificate matching the tag.
It's conceivable that people borrow the tags from neighbors or relatives when they go to court, Parrish said.
"To give the judges a break, I would say it's probably not the whole truth they're getting, not even close," she said.
Parrish, who uses a wheelchair, said that illegal use of parking spaces for the disabled robs people with disabilities of mobility they've worked hard to achieve. The spaces are especially important for people who travel in vans equipped with lifts, she added.
"Sometimes I can't shop. If I'm lucky enough to find two spots that are open and relatively clear, I park diagonally because I need, with the ramp that drops out of the van, the equivalent of two regular spots," she said.
"If it's raining, I appreciate it's tough for everybody to get in, but it's even tougher when you're pushing a wheelchair and can't hold an umbrella, especially when you're carrying packages."
Fred Homan, the county's finance and budget director, oversees parking enforcement and asked a member of his staff to compile the parking data as part of a study on how much revenue the county could raise by increasing fines and bringing them in line with other jurisdictions, where fines can run as high as $200.
"I was surprised by the information," Homan said, adding that he suspects raising the fines would encourage more people to fight their tickets.
He said the Ruppersberger administration has considered naming a hearing officer to preside over parking cases, rather than send them to district court, where judges are already busy. No final decision has been made.