A new state law aimed at making it more difficult for unauthorized drivers to use disabled parking permits raises serious questions about privacy issues and medical records, civil rights advocates say.
The law, set to go into effect Jan. 1, sets stricter conditions for issuing permits, including a requirement that a doctor certify "a full description of the illness or disability" in writing.
But the law also requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to disclose to law enforcement officers "any information" contained in that physician's certificate.
Previously, the DMV was banned from giving out medical information concerning a disabled permit.
"I believe it raises some issues concerning the necessity of spreading around sensitive private information," said lawyer David Raizman, executive director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights. "It certainly raises the question of whether everyone who will now know needs to know."
Raizman pointed out that privacy issues are important in the field of disability rights. Landmark legislation, such as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, have placed strict limits on the disclosure of medical information, he noted.
He said he recognizes that a government agency needs proof that a special parking permit is merited. And he allows that local authorities who enforce parking laws could make use of that information to check the validity of a permit.
But ideally, he would like to see the information in the hands of only one entity.
"If DMV has been the only entity with the information, and now we are adding on the local authorities to that we could say the real problem is that the DMV had it in the first place," Raizman said. "Maybe it should just go to the local governments."
Nonetheless, Raizman said he does not expect much dissent over the new law among disabled people. That's because they feel strongly, he said, that just about anything contributing to better enforcement of the parking permit process is a step in the right direction.
"You don't know how frustrating it is to see people who are not disabled use those spaces we need because they have a permit in their car," said Mason Rose, an activist and former lawyer who has been in a wheelchair since he was in a jet crash in the mid-1960s while in the Marines.
"I've heard there are doctors in Beverly Hills who are signing permit forms for any of their patients who want them," said Rose, 59, who lives in Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Charges that doctors were doing just that in parking-scarce San Francisco led to the bill being introduced in the Legislature.
"If you think parking in Los Angeles is bad, it's many, many times worse in San Francisco," said DMV spokesman William Madison. "Up there, people with legitimate disabled placards have been complaining to their legislators that it's impossible for them to use their spaces because people with no business having a placard somehow got them."
And there have been other wide-scale reports of permit abuse. Earlier this month in Brentwood, DMV investigators said they observed valet parking attendants at a trendy restaurant pull permits from their shirts and slap them on cars in order to make use of convenient free spaces.
A permit seized in the operation was traced back to a 90-year-old woman who noticed it was missing after a trip to the restaurant, investigators said.
"In today's society, we all have to give up a certain amount of privacy," said Rose. "Getting a disabled permit is a privilege, not a right, so I don't have a problem with the fact that the information is going to be spread around a little.
"The parking situation is a terrible problem. Maybe this law will do some good."