By Tonio


As we approach the festival grounds my friend whips out a disabled parking placard and we get waved through to the special, reserved disabled parking area near the entrance gate. I am appropriately embarrassed because none of the guys in the car are in any way disabled. Our driver has the placard because he occasionally transports his legitimately disabled elderly mother. But his mother is a hundred miles away, and I wonder how many other vehicles in the disabled parking area are parked fraudulently. According to the Virginia DMV: “The person to whom the placard or plates was issued must be traveling in the vehicle in order to use these spaces.”

You don’t need a thesis to realize that “the problem of illegal parking in spaces reserved for the physically disabled will continue[…] as long as the benefits associated with parking[…] outweigh the perceived costs (i.e., legal or social consequences).” Disabled parking fraud is a big deal, but nobody knows how big. Virginia crime statistics, compiled by the State Police, don’t include statistics for placard-related crimes, but they do include other petty offenses as well as victimless crimes. None of the sources I found for this article listed convictions per state or other hard numbers. Both my own experience and the anecdotal evidence reported by others suggests that the problem is rampant. The number or laws and regulations addressing disabled parking fraud is also indirect evidence that there is a problem.

One in eight California drivers had disabled placards in 2016, up from one in ten in 2014. Apparently California residents are quite prone to “losing” their placards since a 2018 law “prohibits DMV from issuing more than four substitute permanent placards during a two-year period.” Surprisingly, California’s standards for issuing disabled placards are not that much looser than Virginia’s, but the Golden State adds Optometrists and Certified Nurse Midwives to the list of healthcare providers who can certify people as disabled for placard purposes.

Recently, my neighbor posted on FB asking that other neighbors be on the lookout for a disabled parking placard which had been stolen from her car. She was seemingly unaware that the placard was unlikely to be recovered because it is effectively a bearer instrument which can be used by anyone to park for free in metered spaces (in some localities) and to park in the convenient spaces reserved for the disabled (everywhere). My neighbor will have to report her placard as stolen in order to obtain a replacement but whoever ends up with her stolen placard is unlikely to be caught. I have never seen law enforcement or anyone else scan or record a placard number. Fraudsters prefer placards to disabled license plates for the simple reason of portability.

Under Virginia law all varieties of placard fraud, including forging and selling placards, are Class 2 misdemeanors punishable by “confinement in jail for not more than six months and a fine of not more than $1,000, either or both.” Police, and in certain jurisdictions private security guards, are authorized to seize placards suspected of being used illegally and hold them until the suspect has been tried. Conviction for placard fraud can result in future ineligibility for disabled parking placards.

Virginia disabled parking placards are issued by the DMV and require the signature of a physician, nurse practitioner, physician assistant, podiatrist or chiropractor.” The placards contain machine-printed serial number, barcode and expiration date. There is reciprocity for disabled parking placards among all US states, further expanding the opportunities for fraud. And there are also “Institutional placards… issued at no fee to authorized representatives of non-profit institutions or organizations that regularly transport disabled persons.” Which is totally not a loophole you could drive a commercial wheelchair van through.

While it might be hard to forge an exact replica of a Virginia placard, it would probably be a simple matter to forge one that would be good enough for daily use using a color photocopier, cardstock, and perhaps a laminator.

Several years back I saw a yoga panted, Volvo driving soccer mom whip into a disabled parking space at the supermarket, hang a disabled placard from her rearview, and stride perkily towards the entrance. Upon receiving the hairy eyeball from your author, she said: “It’s my mother, I’m grocery shopping for her.” Uh-huh. The universal belief, or at least the well-rehearsed story, is that if the shopping trip in any way benefits a disabled person then the use of the placard is legitimate. This belief shows up in many of the other sources I’ve linked to in this article and contradicts (at least) Virginia law.

Fraudsters of all sorts rely on the goodwill of the public. Nobody wants to falsely accuse a disabled person of fraud. There are a number of plausible excuses for not having a placard – loss, theft, placard left in another vehicle. Fraudsters always have an excuse ready. You also run the risk of misidentifying fraud in cases of invisible disabilities, such as asthma where the symptoms manifest intermittently. And there’s the ever-popular IDGAF technique where people just park in the disabled spaces and dare anyone to challenge them, like the woman in the Kroger parking lot last weekend.

I’ve wrestled with whether disabled parking fraud is an actual crime with which liberty lovers should concern themselves, or a victimless crime we should ignore. The disability movement views this as a crime against the disabled, but from a libertarian perspective they are neither more or less entitled to dibs or discounts on public parking spaces than anyone else. Statists claim that the state is the victim since fraudsters deprive the state of revenue from metered parking spaces. The state-as-victim argument does not sit well with libertarians, and the best libertarian position is to say that the state should not be involved in this in the first place  a position sure to anger everyone else, but which avoids lending support to either of two equally bad positions. The actual victims here are the private property owners who on the one hand are forced by ADA to provide disabled parking spaces, and on the other hand are open to ADA complaints and bad publicity when fraudsters grab all the disabled parking spaces and the legitimately disabled complain.

Like many other issues, the liberty position on disabled parking makes us easy targets for sound bite criticism – “you libertarians hate disabled people, you oppose disabled parking spaces.” I know of no libertarian who objects to businesses voluntarily providing convenient parking for the disabled, but this is not an area in which the government should be involved. Particularly not the federal government. There exists a very lucrative ADA trolling industry where people go looking for ADA violations and sue businesses which do not comply with the myriad regulations the ADA has spawned. Government, always on the lookout for ways to expand its power and control, has been handed an Orwellian tool to solve a problem of its own making.

Now the real dilemma – what does a libertarian do when confronted with blatant parking fraud? Snitching to the government is distasteful to libertarians. The Iron Laws tell us that the more you prop up busybodies and snitches the more likely you are to be next in their cross-hairs for things like code violations or victimless non-crimes. Complaining to the property owner is unlikely to result in any action since they risk negative publicity in the case of a legitimately disabled person who forgot to put their placard on display, etc. Like so many other problems, perhaps the best answer is to mind your own business if it doesn’t directly affect you.

There is, predictably, a cottage industry in snitching on suspected fraudsters, which is run by a company selling disabled parking signage. From this we learn that actual enforcement is often lax, given the number of repeat offenders. Virginia also allows municipalities to deputize volunteers to enforce disabled parking laws (but no other laws), but whether this has ever been implemented is unknown. California DMV has a link where you can report suspected fraud. Even the disability community grudgingly acknowledges that maybe the free parking for disabled placards might be part of the problem. Incentives, how do they work?