BLOOMINGTON - At least a couple times a month, Christopher M. Kelly can't find an open handicapped-accessible parking spot.
And Kelly, the chairman for Access Allies of Bloomington-Normal, said he often sees cars parked in such spots without disability plates or placards.
"We need that lined-out spot next to the space to unload our mobility device, whether it's a wheelchair or scooter like I use or whatever," Kelly said. "So it's not just a matter of being convenient and close. It's a matter of I can't use a regular spot or I can't get out of my car."
But Illinois Secretary of State Police are targeting drivers using fake placards or borrowing legitimate ones in a statewide crackdown that began the day after Thanksgiving. The officers will be at Eastland Mall on Monday.
Bill Bogdan, disability liaison for the secretary of state's office, said officers already targeted mall patrons in Schaumberg, Orland Park, Springfield, Calumet City, Peoria, Fairview Heights, Carbondale, Rockford and Oak Brook.
"We've known it to be a widespread problem," Bogdan said. "And we're trying to get a handle on the fraudulent usage of these placards."
By Thursday, officers gave tickets to more than 50 people - including five in Peoria - for illegal use of real and fake disability parking placards and license plates, Bogdan said. And an ongoing detail in the city of Chicago has netted about 115 citations, he said.
Officers issued $100 fines and confiscated driver's licenses of people using fraudulent parking placards, Bogdan said. And parking fines will go up in 2006.
"As of today, the people face a minimum of a $100 fine," Bogdan said. "But from Jan. 1, they're going to face a mandatory $500 fine and suspension of their driver's license for a period of time up to one year."
Bloomington Police Sgt. Randy Wilson said officers in his department issued 191 tickets for illegal parking in handicapped spaces in 2005, and 560 in the last three years. But he said it can be hard to detect some fake placards at a glance.
Figures from Normal were not available Friday.
Placards issued this year will have enhanced holographic images, making fakes easier to spot, Bogdan said. Current placards have holograms and identify the expiration date and user's gender and year of birth.
Police gave a ticket to a woman entering a car with a placard designated for a male Thursday at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie in Peoria, Bogdan said. The woman admitted it was her father's placard, but claimed she also had health problems and thought she could use it, he said.
"I use a wheelchair, so I can obviously firsthand identify with the abuse," Bogdan said. "But as a person with a disability, it's imperative that you do not allow others to use your plate or placard when you're not in the vehicle."
And it's still illegal if the disabled person is in the vehicle, but does not get out when parked in a disabled spot.
More than 600,000 disability placards are in circulation, but those include ones reported lost, stolen, damaged or broken, Bogdan said. There are about 85,000 disability license plates in circulation.
Kelly, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, said it is "extremely frustrating" when he can't find a space for his wheelchair-modified van because of illegal parking.
"I'm a father, I've got four kids, and there (are) places that I need to take them or pick them up from," Kelly said. "And, you know, sometimes I try to do that and I can't get out of the car to go get them or get out of my car to go with them."
And Kelly said he often can't get back into his van at stores and schools because cars parked in the spaces painted with diagonal lines, which are needed for a wheelchair lift.
State law requires handicapped spaces to be 16 feet wide, and the minimum number of those spaces depends on the size of the lot.
State law currently requires a minimum $100 fine for illegally parking in such spots, but cities can add $100 to that fine.