Awhile back I drove into the parking lot of a Sprout's grocery store for my usual restroom break and snack purchase. As I walked up to the front doors I saw a small SUV parked in the handicap space.
I looked for a disabled parking placard on the dashboard and on the rear view mirror but did not see one. The vehicle was running and I could see an adult sitting in the rear seat. I opened the rear door to ask the woman if she had a disabled parking placard. The woman stared at me blankly and did not answer due to her inability to comprehend or speak English. A 6 year old girl was in a car seat next to the woman so I asked her if she understand me. The girl did not answer and looked away.
I wrote a citation for parking in the handicap parking space and was about to place it on the driver's door when a woman walked out of the store carrying a few bags of groceries.
"What are you doing?", she asked me.
"Writing a citation for parking in a disabled parking space without a permit."
"But my daughter is autistic."
"Do you have a disabled parking permit?"
"No, but I only went in for a few minutes to get some thing for my daughter."
"I'm sorry, but you need to have a permit to park in this space. Here's your citation."
Fast forward a few months to a downtown courtroom where the driver has requested a trial to challenge the citation.
We are sworn in and I sit at the plaintiff table while the woman and another woman she has brought as a witness sit at the defense table. The judge asks to present my case first:
"Your honor, on the date and location listed in the complaint I saw a Honda CRV parked in a clearly marked disabled parking space without the required disability permit placard. I contacted an adult passenger in the car and asked her about the permit but she did not speak English. A child seated in the backseat also did not respond to my question. As I completed the citation, the vehicle owner came out of the store and told me her daughter was autistic. The child remained in the car the entire time the driver was shopping. I issued her a parking violation citation."
The judge then turned to the woman and asked, "Do you have any questions for the officer?" She nodded and began her brutal cross-examination:
"Officer, did you see the 'I love an autistic child bumper' sticker on my car?"
"Was my child screaming or acting erratic in any way?"
"Did you see an open handicap parking spot next to where I parked?"
-"Not that I remember."
"If I brought my daughter into the store, wouldn't you agree it would be difficult and strenuous?"
-"I'm not familiar with your daughter's behavior and could not predict how she would have acted."
"No more questions."
She then told her side of the story:
"My daughter is autistic and needs a special diet of goat's milk, goat yogurt, and goat cheese. She's a flight risk so I always need to have a adult with her. I parked in the handicap space because if she got out of control I need to be able to see her from inside the store. There weren't any other close places to park and I was only shopping for few minutes."
She showed the judge a temporary disable parking permit she obtained after being cited. She then told the judge through an outburst of tears she didn't apply for the permit earlier because she hoped the girl would get better on her own.
Her witness was the child's behavior specialist and testified the girl was difficult to handle so her mother needed to park close to the door in order to get her into and out of the car safely.
The judge was moved by the emotional plea but knew he had no choice but to find her responsible. Trying to make me the bad guy he stated, "Well, you did commit the violation and I'm required to impose a minimum fine of $250. I have to find you responsible, UNLESS, the officer wishes not to proceed."
And there it was. He called me out. The judge, defendant, and courtroom filled with citizens and officers all looking at me with anticipation of my response.
A woman crying about her poor sick daughter being victimized by the mean old police officer. I don't think she is a bad person and I feel for her situation but I didn't agree with the way she handled this. She never took responsibility or apologized for her action. She used her daughter as an excuse and pleaded for sympathy and pity. I thought of the people with actual physical disabilities that need to park in the designated spaces and how many times they've thanked me when they saw me issuing these tickets.
"Officer, do you wish to proceed with this matter?", the judge asked in a way that suggested I drop the case.
"Your honor, the defendant intentionally parked in a disabled parking space without a permit. I feel for her situation but her daughter never left the car while it was parked there. The defendant's own witness testified the reason for parking close is to control the girl while getting in or out of the car. Since the child remained in the car, there was no reason to park in that space. I don't believe the defendant has a reasonable excuse to park there and believe the citation is justified."
The judge found her responsible and ordered her to pay the fine. This was the first time a guilty verdict did not inspire a feeling of elation in me. This close to Christmas, I wondered if I should have just let her off the hook and dropped the case but something inside me wanted her to be accountable.
A word of advice to those of you caught in a minor offense: Take responsibility for your action, show regret, and don't make up excuses. You'll almost always get off with a warning.