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Report Number : 2016-121

Department of Motor Vehicles
Administrative and Statutory Changes Will Improve Its Ability to Detect and Deter Misuse of Disabled Person Parking Placards




State law allows people with disabilities to apply to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for a disabled person parking placard (placard) or disabled person or disabled veteran license plate (plate). Specifically, placard or plate holders may park for an unlimited time in parking spaces with posted time limitations and may park in metered spaces for an unlimited time without having to pay meter fees. In addition to free, unlimited parking, displaying a valid placard or plate permits the holder to park in blue zones and certain designated parking stalls and spaces that are restricted to those displaying such a placard or plate.

DMV offers license plates and three types of placards: temporary, travel, and permanent. Figure 1 on the following page depicts the different types of plates and placards. People with a temporary disability, such as a broken leg, can apply for a red temporary placard. These placards are valid for up to six months and are renewable up to six consecutive times. People with a permanent qualifying disability can receive a blue permanent placard and can also receive a license plate. Permanent placards expire on June 30 of every odd‑numbered year, and DMV automatically issues and mails renewal placards. Finally, a travel placard is a temporary placard that DMV issues to permanently disabled people meeting the disability requirements in state law. DMV issues this placard to nonresidents for no more than 90 days and to California residents for no more than 30 days. Travel placards are for use when a placard holder would not have the original placard available. For example, the placard holder leaves a car parked at an airport but also needs a placard for a rental vehicle at their California destination.

Figure 1
Types of Disabled Parking Placards and License Plates

Figure 1, a description of the three types of disabled person parking placards and two types of disabled person parking license plates and images of those placards and plates.

Sources: DMV and California state law.

The application for both plates and placards is identical. Individuals may apply for them in person at DMV field offices throughout the state or by mail through DMV’s offices in Sacramento.1 As of June 30, 2016, there were approximately 2.9 million placards and plates active in California. Figure 2 shows the proportions of this number that are permanent placards, temporary placards, and plates. Plates are associated with a specific vehicle. On the other hand, placards are associated with the applicant, who need not be a driver. State law allows others, such as parents or family members, who are transporting a disabled person to use a placard. As of June 30, 2016, the median age of placard holders was 71; however, a person of any age may have a placard, including children. For example, in our random sample of 96 placard applications that DMV received from July 2013 through June 2016, one was for an individual under the age of five years. DMV also issues some plates and placards to organizations that transport disabled individuals. State law limits any applicant to one active permanent placard at a time.

Figure 2
Disabled Person Parking Placards and Plates Active as of June 30, 2016

Figure 2, a pie chart showing the distribution of permanent and temporary disabled parking placards and disabled parking license plates.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of data obtained from DMV’s Vehicle/Vessel Registration Master File.

Note: An individual may own multiple disabled person or veteran  license plates and a single disabled person parking placard.

* The term plates includes disabled person and disabled veteran license plates.

Obtaining a placard or plate requires certification by a medical provider of the applicant’s disability unless the disability is readily observable and uncontested. Alternatively, disabled veterans may submit a certificate from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs in lieu of submitting a certification by a provider. State law establishes the disabilities that qualify for the program, and DMV places these disabilities into eight categories on its application. Further, state law specifies the types of providers who may certify disabilities for obtaining a plate or placard, and it limits the types of disabilities certain providers may certify. For example, only optometrists or physicians and surgeons with a specialization in diseases of the eye may certify that an applicant is legally blind.Table 1 lists the types of qualifying disability categories and the types of providers that may diagnose them.

Table 1
DMV Disability Categories and Medical Provider Types

Medical Provider Types

Disability Categories Provider May Certify*
lung disease
Severe CArdiovascular disease
Substantially impaired mobility
Unable to move without an assistive device
Significant limitation in use of lower extremIties
Loss, or loss of use, of one or both lower extremIties
Loss, or loss of use, of both hands
Legally blind
Physician and Surgeon
Physician’s Assistant  
Nurse Practitioner  
Nurse Midwife  

Sources: California state law, DMV disabled person parking placard and license plate application, and DMV’s vehicle registration manual.

* In addition to the categories above, disabled veterans qualify if they have lost the use of one or more limbs or have a mobility-related disability rating of 100 percent from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the military branch from which they were discharged.

A physician and surgeon who has a specialty in diseases of the eye may also make certifications related to Category 8.

Although people can claim several types of disabilities on their applications for placards and plates, the most common relate to substantially impaired mobility or significant limitation of the use of the lower extremities. Figure 3 presents the proportion of the disabilities claimed in our representative sample of 96 applications drawn from the universe of original applications DMV approved from July 2013 through June 2016.2 Finally, according to state law, an applicant does not need a disability certification from a medical provider if the disability is readily observable and uncontested. In that case, a DMV staff person may certify the disability.

Figure 3
Disability Categories and Descriptions Listed on a Representative Sample of Disabled Person Parking Placard and License Plate Applications Approved by DMV
July 1, 2013, Through June 30, 2016

Figure 3, a pie chart showing the distribution of disability categories listed on a representative sample of applications DMV approved from July 2013 through June 2016.

Source: California State Auditor’s analysis of a representative sample of the proportion of disabilities claimed in original disabled person parking placard and license plate applications approved by DMV from July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2016..

Misuse of Disabled Person Parking Placards

The ability of placard users to park for free in metered parking spaces and for unlimited amounts of time in time‑restricted parking zones creates a significant incentive for abuse. For example, a person might misuse the placard of a deceased person, a stolen placard, or a placard belonging to someone else. This abuse persists despite heavy penalties, including criminal convictions, for misusing placards. Under state law, lending a placard to another person or using another person’s placard is punishable by a base fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months of imprisonment. In addition, a city or county may adopt an ordinance or resolution to assess an additional penalty of $100 as long as it uses the revenue generated by the penalty to enforce disabled person parking. Also, when a person misuses another’s placard or plate, courts may impose additional civil penalties of $1,500. Placard abuse involving falsifying DMV documents is a felony, which is punishable by up to three years in a state prison. According to DMV’s budget officer, DMV does not receive any funding from the penalties for placard misuse. The fines generated through issuance of citations for placard abuse go to cities and counties.

The Disabled Person Parking Law Has Changed Over the Years

The scope of California’s placard and plate law has expanded over time. In 1959 the Legislature gave those needing the aid of a wheelchair or who had lost the use of both legs the right to park for an unlimited time in zones with time limits. In 1961 the Legislature expanded the privilege to include those who had lost the use of one or both legs or who needed the aid of a mechanical device. In 1970 the privilege was further expanded to those who had lost the use of one or more limbs. In 1972 the Legislature expanded the law again to apply to individuals who had lost the use of both hands. The Legislature also allowed people with disabilities the right to park in metered spaces for freein response to a disabled veteran who was able to drive using prosthetic devices, but who was unable to handle small coins and could not pay a parking meter. Over time, the Legislature has added additional disabilities to the list of those eligible for special parking privileges, such as severe lung disease and legal blindness. Although the impetus for the free parking benefit was one person’s inability to use a meter, the benefit currently applies to all placard or plate holders.

Some states have restricted who is eligible for free parking. We reviewed disabled person parking policies in nine states in addition to California. Appendix A includes the results of our review. Several of the states we reviewed offer free metered parking for those using placards, and some had no time restrictions. However, two states we reviewed have employed two‑tier systems. Specifically, in Illinois and Michigan, all placard holders may park in spaces designated for people with disabilities. However, to receive the benefit of free parking in metered spaces, they must have a disability that limits their ability to use a parking meter. According to a representative of the Illinois Office of the Secretary of State, when the law passed in 2014, only about 10 percent of placard holders were eligible for meter‑exempt parking—significantly decreasing the number of people receiving free parking. In 2016 the California Legislature considered a bill to implement a two‑tiered program similar to the ones in Illinois and Michigan; however, that bill did not come to a vote. According to a legislative analysis of the bill, the purpose was to address placard fraud and to provide better parking access to those with disabilities, but opponents were concerned the bill would substantially affect people with disabilities who encounter multiple physical barriers. The opposition stated that if rampant abuse is occurring, DMV and the municipalities should address the fraud through enforcement rather than further burdening those in the disabled community.

Department of Motor Vehicles’ Investigations of Placard Misuse

DMV’s Investigations Unit (Investigations) is responsible for active fraud and counterfeit detection, investigation, and enforcement, including enforcing the laws regarding misuse of placards. When fully staffed, Investigations employs about 240 investigators across the State at its 25 district offices in DMV’s three regions. Investigators are sworn peace officers who, in addition to investigating placard fraud and misuse, investigate a variety of driver’s license and motor vehicle related crimes, including identity theft, odometer fraud, and automobile dealer misconduct. According to Investigations’ supervisor of IT projects and support, from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16 DMV initiated a total of more than 117,000 cases. Of those cases, 3,188 were related to placards and 480 of those, or about 15 percent, were generated by complaints Investigations received from parties external to Investigations, including the public, law enforcement, and other units within DMV. Investigations initiated the remaining cases itself.

Investigations’ primary tactic for stopping placard misuse is through sting operations. During a sting operation, investigators stake out a predetermined location, approach drivers who park using a placard or plate, and issue infraction or misdemeanor citations to those found to be misusing the placard or plate. According to the deputy chief of Investigations, investigators conduct sting operations in a variety of locations, including department store parking lots, sporting events, college campuses, and areas where they receive complaints of misuse. Occasionally, local law enforcement officers participate. According to DMV’s records, from fiscal years 2013–14 through 2015–16, Investigations conducted 270 sting operations, including one statewide operation involving all district offices during which investigators issued more than 200 citations in one day. More than 1,000 of the cases that investigators opened from July 2013 through June 2016 resulted in a conviction. Appendix B includes the number of placard and plate investigations that DMV conducted from July 2013 through June 2016 and the outcomes of those investigations.

Local Authorities’ Attempts to Combat Placard Misuse

Local parking enforcement officials play the most significant role in combatting placard abuse as they routinely patrol their communities. However, the enforcement tactics and strategies these officials use vary. To identify these strategies, as well as how significant a problem placard misuse is within cities, we interviewed officials from six cities: Berkeley, Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz. Parking enforcement officials at five of these six cities stated that placard abuse was a large problem within their cities—only Santa Cruz said that it was not. Los Angeles reported that, in some areas of the city, the majority of vehicles parked on the street display a placard. Because of the magnitude of placard misuse, according to the assistant director of the enforcement division of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA), San Francisco has 14 full‑time parking enforcement officials specifically dedicated to identifying and citing people fraudulently using placards.

The five cities reporting significant placard abuse said that they conduct sting operations, but the frequency varied by city. For example, Los Angeles reported that it had more than quadrupled the number of sting operations, which it refers to as compliance checks, as a result of the growing misuse of placards—from 49 in 2013 to 206 in 2016. According to Fresno’s parking supervisor, Fresno conducts a sting operation roughly every four months in partnership with DMV. SFMTA’s assistant director of the enforcement division reported that when parking enforcement officials discover a vehicle displaying an invalid placard and they are unable to make contact with the driver, the official has the vehicle towed. Despite these efforts, four of these five parking enforcement officials believe their enforcement activities have little or no effect on mitigating placard abuse. Essentially, they were of the opinion that people fraudulently using placards will continue to do so, particularly given the benefit of free parking and the minimal risk of being caught or fined.



1 DMV has field offices in more than 170 locations throughout the state that offer a variety of services, such as vehicle registration and driver’s license processing, in addition to accepting placard or plate applications. DMV’s Investigations Unit has 25 district offices throughout the state where DMV’s investigators work.
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2 We selected a random sample from a population of more than 1.4 million original plate and placard applications DMV approved from July 2013 through June 2016. We used a 95 percent confidence interval and a 10 percent precision rate to determine an appropriate sample size. Our results should be interpreted as a best estimate, and they include a range of potential values based on the sampling criteria we chose.
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