News

January 6, 2002

At first glance, state law appears very clear: a driver who parks in an area designated as a fire lane or one not qualified who usurps a spot reserved for physically handicapped persons is liable to be fined between $50 and $100. It is evident from even casual observation, however, that both laws are routinely violated.

 What's more, state police statistics indicate that about one in every four persons officially observed and cited for violating a fire lane beats the rap. And about half of those charged with wrongly using a handicapped spot get off.

In both categories,  it would seem that conviction rates would be even lower if those who simply mail in the ticket along with payment of the minimum fine instead challenged the citation in magistrate court.

Both sets of parking restrictions resulted from serious concerns about public safety and have widespread public support. Nevertheless, it is possible to visit any shopping center at virtually any time and find obvious violations -- even though there are vacant spaces available a few feet removed.

New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner believes it is high time that steps are taken to either strengthen the laws or improve enforcement or both. As a first step, he has arranged for the issue to receive an airing on Jan. 10 at the monthly public meeting of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. The session will begin at 7 p.m. in Brandywine High School on Foulk Road.

Spokesman Cpl. Walter Newton told Delaforum that mostly state police cadets issued 2,452 tickets for fire lane violations statewide in 2000. Of those, charges were dismissed in 32 cases and 26 were found not guilty. There are still 541 cases listed as pending, which he said include citations that were ignored. During the first 11 months of 2001, 2,527 tickets were issued, 32 cases dismissed, 16 found not guilty and 655 are pending.

The proportion of judicial dismissals is dramatically larger in cases involving charges of illegally parking in handicapped spaces. Of 623 tickets issued in 2000, 151 were voided. Through November, 2001, 135 of the 526 citations were dismissed. Fourteen of the alleged offenders were found not guilty in 2000 and eight such verdicts rendered in the 2001 period. Listed as pending are 128 of the 2000 cases and 123 of those in 2001.

The larger number of people who evidently do contest handicapped parking charges most likely results from a growing awareness that state law is very specific about how each designated space must be identified. While New Castle County requires that a proportionate number of parking spaces associated with a commercial building be reserved for the handicapped, there evidently is no followup to assure they are correctly marked. As a result, many are not.

State law specifies that each handicapped parking space should be "conspicuously marked" by a sign 12 inches wide and 18 inches tall posted five to seven feet above the ground. It must specify that the space is "reserved" and include the international handicapped symbol.

On the other hand, Delaware Code is vague on defining what a fire lane should look like. It said only that it should be "designated and properly identified" and makes general reference to a yellow curb or yellow line at the edge of the roadway.

To be sure, it generally is agreed that, especially with handicapped parking, that abuse occurs involving both authorized and unauthorized persons.

Weiner said the most difficult aspect of addressing the situation is pinpointing why the applicable laws are so frequently, and freely, violated.

"About two years ago, I began looking into this issue. I found that the state police lacked sufficient personnel to address this issue. I, and other elected officials and civic leaders supported the state police
initiative to add a cadet force whose mission was to focus on these scofflaws," he said. The state police has jurisdiction in most shopping centers.

Even though a cadet force was specifically authorized by state law to handle the task for ticketing such violators, the arrangement evidently has not been effective, the councilman said. Violators who challenged the summonses in magistrate court were frequently able to have the charges dismissed.

The cadet force consists of youths between the ages of 18 and 20 recruited and trained to issue tickets in shopping centers and other commercial areas. They are not being trained as police officers but are comparable to so-called municipal 'meter maids'.

Weiner said he received conflicting reports when he inquired about the reasons for the dismissals. They included:

The state fire marshal's office needed to update its regulations.

Shopping centers, apartment complexes and other applicable areas failed to properly designate and place signage in the handicapped spots and fire lanes and the fire marshal's office is not properly
inspecting those areas.

State police are not effectively prosecuting these cases.

Magistrates are not applying the law consistently.

State law needs to be updated.

County law needs to be updated.

County code violations are not being addressed.

After two years of looking into the situation, "I have more questions than answers," Weiner said.

In addition to establishing fines, the section of the law dealing with fire-lane violations authorizes law enforcers and fire officials to have offending vehicles towed at the owner's expense.

There is a general perception that the state's rather liberal policy of issuing special licenses plates and, more particularly, identification tags to be dangled from vehicle mirrors has led to widespread abuse of handicapped accommodations.

The permanent license plates are supposedly valid for such consideration only when the person for whom they are issued is using the vehicle. The tags are primarily for use when the handicapped person is being transported by someone else although there is a provision in the law that they can be obtained in lieu of a permanent plate.

In any event, necessity rather than convenience is supposed to be the determining factor in a person's availing themselves of preferred parking.

In the city of Wilmington, where enforcement of overtime parking is waived for handicapped-identified vehicles, it has become common practice for cars sporting the blue identification tags to be parked all day every day in metered spaces. They apparently can be several blocks removed from places of employment and farther away than paid-parking facilities with handicapped accessibility.

2002. All rights reserved.

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