Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Nebraska lawmaker wants to raise fine for accessible parking violation to $1,000

From the Omaha World-Herald:

The teal Honda Civic sat askew in a handicapped parking stall outside J.C. Penney at Westroads Mall.

Two wheels blocked the yellow-striped access lane that gives wheelchair users enough space to exit their vehicles.

That was enough for Gary Kotyza.

The Handicapped Parking Patrol volunteer pulled out his ticket book and slipped a violation notice on the windshield.

As Kotyza walked away, the car's driver walked up.

Kotzya told the woman — who had a valid handicapped parking placard — that she had violated a regulation by blocking an access aisle.

“I didn't know that,” the woman said.

It was an expensive lesson: Such violations can lead to a $150 fine plus $48 in court fees.

The price could get much steeper, though, if State Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha has her way.

She has introduced Legislative Bill 438, which would raise the maximum fine for a handicapped parking violation to $1,000.

“It's about education,” Kotyza said, “and sometimes education has a price tag.”

He is one of 75 volunteers in the patrol, which is authorized by Omaha police to issue parking citations. The patrol's quick lap around the Westroads on a recent afternoon produced eight tickets in about an hour. Among offenses were not hanging the handicapped parking placard from the rear view mirror and removing the stickers that display the driver's age and gender and the placard's expiration date.

All those violations would be subject to steeper fines under Howard's bill.

She said she was inspired after watching an “almost altercation” between a disabled man and another man who had illegally parked in a handicapped parking stall.

“The penalty is so low nobody else is observing it,” Howard said. “I think people would take it more seriously if there was a bigger fine.”

Current fines — last raised in 2008 — include a maximum penalty of $150 for a first offense in a calendar year and up to $300 and $500 for second and third offenses, respectively.

Pat Enenbach of Omaha, the patrol's leader since its inception in 1992, has mixed feelings about the proposal.

She personally worries that such a steep increase in fines might harm the bill's chances of passing. If it does pass, it's progress, she said.

“When I started, the fine was $25, and people thought that was ridiculous,” said Enenbach who, like her husband, Craig, is disabled.

In her 19 years with the patrol, Enenbach has seen everything from a disabled man napping in the driver's seat in a handicapped parking stall to teenagers borrowing their grandfather's car to go to a movie.

Although violators usually give the patrol more accolades than arguments, the anger can still be there, Enenbach said.

“I tell people on patrol: ‘If they're belligerent, walk away. Someone will write them a ticket another day.'”

In 2010, the patrol issued 1,096 such tickets, or 84 percent of the total issued in Omaha. Police officers issued the rest.

For many of the volunteers, it's personal — they have handicapped or aging family members who rely on the parking being used appropriately. Kotyza's parents, for example, are in their late 90s and have been slowing down in recent years.

“If I can help somebody less fortunate — since I have the legs — I'm going to do what I can,” Kotyza said.