In Beverly Hills, a DMV agent confiscates a disabled parking placard from a woman leaving a fitness center.
In downtown Los Angeles, a motorist launches into a rant about "evil" meter readers after acknowledging that he's using someone else's disabled parking pass.
And in neighborhoods near UCLA, 17 students are stopped and questioned as they scurry to class, their cars parked in restricted zones, disabled parking badges dangling from their rear-view mirrors.
Fraudulent use of disabled parking placards -- those blue or red badges that allow motorists to park for free or in specially reserved spaces -- has exploded in the last decade, according to state motor vehicle officials. With 1 in 10 California drivers now legally registered to carry the passes, transportation experts say abuse has become commonplace. At any given moment, on any given street, more than a third of the vehicles displaying the tags -- and parking without paying -- are doing so illegally, say officials with the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Now, with the state and municipalities in financial crisis, the DMV is cracking down on placard fraud. In a series of sting operations, DMV investigators have targeted malingering motorists in such high-volume parking districts as Beverly Hills' Golden Triangle, downtown's Fashion District and Westwood. With more stings planned, they could be coming soon to a street near you.
The issue strikes at the nexus of parking angst, civic revenues and righteous indignation. With many cities adopting high-tech meters and demand-based pricing, abuse of disabled placards translates into millions of dollars in lost parking revenues and increased traffic congestion as paying motorists are forced to cruise streets looking for open spaces, officials say.
"It's unbelievable how many people do it," grumbled one passerby in Beverly Hills, who praised a recent DMV sting operation. "I find it a little galling."
Under California law, as in most states, cars displaying a disabled placard may park for free for an unlimited time at metered spaces.
The placard holder does not have to own or drive the vehicle, but if a relative or friend is using the placard to secure free, unlimited parking, then the placard holder must accompany that person or be within "reasonable proximity."
The law was intended to make it more convenient for individuals with missing or paralyzed extremities, impaired vision or heart, circulatory or lung disease to park conveniently and for as long as necessary to visit doctors or run errands.
A disabled placard may be prescribed by, among others, a medical doctor, a nurse practitioner, a certified nurse midwife, a physician's assistant, a chiropractor or an optometrist.
But with metered spaces now costing as much as $4 an hour, the temptation to misuse a friend's or relative's placard -- even a dead one's -- can be great.
"It does sort of invite this corruption and is a disservice to other motorists," said Michael Manville, a UCLA researcher who has studied the problem.
Although some abusers might be ignorant of the law governing placard use, many seem all too aware and willing to flout it.
The reactions of drivers can be telling, investigators say. Magdalene Osherenko, a driver cited during the recent sting in Beverly Hills, became agitated and tried to grab a placard registered to her mother from the DMV investigator who had confiscated it. "I think it's not fair what you're doing," she told investigators. "You're in Beverly Hills. I'm going to take this up with the Beverly Hills Police Department."
"We're state of California," officer David Wisansky told her.
Another driver cited by DMV investigators in Beverly Hills had just emerged from a Camden Drive fitness center to her expired meter. She told officers that she had earlier dropped her mother at a doctor's office, and her mother confirmed that via cellphone. Nonetheless, an investigator confiscated the placard, saying the woman had "personally garnered a benefit" by using it to park for free while she exercised.
Abuse of disabled placards is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most infamous local case dates to 1999, when several members of the UCLA football team pleaded guilty to obtaining disabled parking passes by fabricating the names of physicians. The incident even prompted the university to establish an abuse hotline.
What is new, however, is the proliferation of disabled placards.
California, which has 24 million licensed drivers, will issue 2.1 million permanent placards this year, up from 1.2 million a decade ago. In Los Angeles County, about 621,000 of nearly 6 million licensed drivers have placards.
"The city of Los Angeles has six legal placards for every single city meter," said Jonathan Williams, a transportation planner in Seattle who as a graduate student at UCLA researched the effect of legal disabled placards on city parking programs.
Williams said questionable medical practices undoubtedly contribute to the problem.
Under privacy laws, the DMV may not ask a motorist why he or she has a placard. When enforcement officials in Maryland attempted to investigate doctors' prescriptions for placards, Williams said, they "were met with a fierce response from the medical community."
In California, discussions about changing the vehicle code haven't gotten far because of resistance from advocacy groups. "I don't want us in our zeal to put something in place that's going to screw over [disabled] people," said Margaret Johnson, advocacy director for Disability Rights California in Sacramento.
With misuse on the rise, said Vito Scattaglia, deputy chief of the division of investigations at the DMV, the agency is planning a statewide placard enforcement day this spring.
"We need a deterrent," he said.