Able-bodied drivers are illegally using disabled placards issued to their friends and relatives -- including children and the deceased -- to get free and easy parking meant for people with disabilities, an NBC4 I-Team investigation has found.
Repeat-violators caught on camera by the I-Team include a mom whose 11-year-old son has autism, entitling him to a placard that adults can only use to drive him around. But his mom used his placard to nab prime parking for regular hikes with her girlfriends.
Another violator used a placard issued to her mother-in-law, who died two years ago. And another driver, the son of a rabbi, used his mentally disabled sister’s placard.
"It’s very frustrating because there doesn’t seem to be any kind of guilt associated with doing that," said Vito Scattaglia, a DMV commander.
Misuse of placards is "out of control" in some areas, according to a state official who asked not to be named. DMV officials said perhaps hundreds of thousands of the 2.6 million placards issued in California are being illegally used by friends and relatives of the disabled.
Paula Santillan drives from her home in East LA several times a week to hike LA’s popular Runyon Canyon. Street parking near the trailhead is reserved for residents, with open parking available a block away.
The I-Team observed Santillan regularly taking one of the prime parking spots at the entrance, slapping her son’s disabled placard on her mirror before embarking on her hike -- an intense, two-hour workout that, according to her Instagram page, burned an estimated 990 calories.
The I-Team’s Joel Grover caught up with Santillan on one of her hikes.
Grover: Do you know what you’re doing is illegal?
Santillan: I do.
Grover: So why do you do it?
Santillan: Because the parking sucks here.
In California, if a driver has a disabled parking placard, he or she can park just about anywhere, anytime. It’s a crime to use a placard unless it’s registered to you or to someone present in the car.
But day after day, the I-Team found "parking cheaters" hogging premium parking spots.
The I-Team’s cameras caught Laura Kontomitras parking in a "residents only" area at Runyon Canyon by using her dead mother-in-law’s disability placard. Kontomitras is a world-class hiker who once climbed part of Mount Kilimanjaro.
The I-Team emailed Kontomitras and asked why she was using someone else’s placard.
"Your point is heard loud and clear and well taken," she emailed in return. She said she’d need to speak with her attorney before commenting. NBC4 never heard back.
And the I-Team got video of Shmuel Schwartz, the son of a well-known Los Angeles rabbi, also parking at Runyon Canyon by displaying the placard of his mentally disabled 54-year old sister.
The I-Team emailed Schwartz and sent him a message on Facebook to explain his apparent misuse of a placard, but didn’t hear back from him.
"I think they’re selfish," said Mike Birdsall, who runs the website www.handicappedfraud.org, about people who illegally used disabled placards. His website posts license plates of drivers who use other people’s placards.
"There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than somebody being lazy, using a placard that’s not for them, and taking a spot from somebody who really needs the spot," Birdsall said.
The problem persists in both residential and commercial areas.
One morning this month in the Fashion District near downtown LA, the I-Team counted 14 cars with disabled placards parked at meters on a single block of Santee Street. Those placards meant free parking in a metered spot all day, regardless of the restrictions.
NBC4's investigation found more than half of the placards hanging in those cars were issued to other vehicles.
"I do not think that officers or cities are doing a good job of making sure placards are being used appropriately," Birdsall said. "I think it’s low on their goals or their objectives."
At Runyon Canyon, the I-Team spoke with Officer Nnamoko, whose first name was not available, under LA's parking enforcement policy.
He told the I-Team he often noticed many cars parked in restricted areas by unlawfully using placards, and said he often wrote citations for misuse of placards.
But day after day, the I-Team saw Officer Nnamoko and other officers drive past cars with placards without checking them out.
The LA Department of Transportation confirmed to NBC4 that Officer Nnamoko didn’t issue a single citation for placard misuse in the last fiscal year.
That might be why Santillan as well as others think they can get away with using other people’s placards -- but only until they get caught.
The day the I-Team confronted Santillan about using her son’s placard to get prime parking, she said, "What I’m doing is wrong. And I’m moving my car."
She did move her car -- to a legal parking space just one block away.