Accessible parking permits are 'golden ticket' for cheats

Parking enforcement officers tell CBC Toronto some 50,000 permits for accessible parking spots are probably being misused across Toronto by friends and relatives of the actual permit holders. That's illegal — and can bring a fine of up to $5,000.

Tens of thousands of permits thought to be used by friends, relatives of legitimate permit holders

Parking enforcement officer Scott Wylie explains why he's seizing the accessible parking permit of this couple, who'd parked near the Eaton Centre in downtown Toronto. The permit had been issued to the woman's ailing father. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

For Scott Wylie and his team, it's a real-life game of cat and mouse. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day — all over Toronto — they're on the hunt. Their targets: able-bodied Torontonians who park almost anywhere they want, for free, by using permits for accessible parking spots that belong to others with legitimate disabilities.

"It's a golden ticket for them" Wylie says about people who abuse the system.

"With the high cost of parking in Toronto, people take advantage of that permit so they don't have to pay."

A CBC Toronto investigation reveals the vast majority of the approximately 500,000 accessible permits issued to Toronto-area residents are used properly. But investigators like Wylie believe about 50,000 of those permits are used by friends and relatives of the actual permit holders. That's illegal.

Wylie says there are thousands of other permits being displayed on cars that are either fake, or photocopies of the original. Those are easy to spot due to anti-counterfeiting measures already in place. Catching those who misuse legitimate permits is a lot harder and time consuming.

A Toronto parking enforcement officer confronts two people he suspects are misusing an accessibility parking permit. 0:18

"The abuse is so rampant, I'm sure if I doubled my unit, I'm sure I would get double the offenders" he says.

Toronto parking enforcement officer Christina Acevedo says such abuse is not only unfair to those who play by the rules, it's also hurting downtown businesses. She's noticed there is little turnover of parking spots for potential customers on many downtown streets due to the large number of people misusing permits. 

"You can park in a pay-and-display [spot] or in a no parking [zone] and you can stay all day for free," she says. 

Parking enforcement officer Christina Acevedo writes a ticket for the woman on the left. She also seized the woman's accessible parking permit. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

CBC News recently found entire streets in the downtown core where every car parked displayed an accessible permit.

Acevedo has hid in alleys waiting to catch able-bodied people misusing the permits.

"They know they're not supposed to use the permit, so they go around and look out to see [if we're here]," she says. 

"And when it's safe, they jump in their cars and go."

Acevedo and Wylie have seized permits that belonged to people who had died. Recently they found a west-end family business had printed numerous copies of an accessible parking permit that belonged to a relative. The permits were then placed on the dashboards of their company vehicles to avoid paying for parking. 

Toronto has some of the most generous regulations for accessible permit holders. They can park almost anywhere for free. The only exceptions are in rush hour zones and in front of fire hydrants. Other municipalities have much more restrictive guidelines.

Every day, Wylie's crew seizes more and more permits from people misusing them. One recent afternoon, they sat in unmarked police vehicles and waited for people to return to cars that displayed accessible permits. It didn't take long to find suspected cheats.

In one case, Wylie confronted a man in his 30s who had parked near a busy downtown intersection with his wife. On their dashboard was a permit that was issued to an elderly man. 

When CBC Toronto visited Windsor Street, in the city's entertainment district, last month all 17 cars parked there displayed an accessible parking permit. (John Lancaster/CBC)

'Why should I pay for parking?'

Wylie says the driver asked "Why should I pay for parking?" and insisted he was there to pick up the permit holder, who was supposedly buying lottery tickets in a nearby shopping mall. 

His wife told Wylie another story — "He's in the hospital" — while insisting they had the right to park for free despite the fact the nearest hospital was blocks away.

Both became irate when the permit was seized. The elderly man will no longer have access to his permit and the driver could be charged under the Highway Traffic Act. The fines range from $300 to $5,000.

A Toronto parking enforcement officer suspects a couple of misusing an accessible parking permit in downtown Toronto. 0:58

Similar scenarios played out for Acevedo as she approached two cars on a nearby side street. Two men, in their teens or early 20s, emerged from a car displaying an accessible permit. They claimed they were picking up the permit holder, but when pressed, couldn't say exactly where the permit holder was. Acevedo seized the permit and charged the driver. 

A woman was charged a few minutes later when she got into a car parked nearby. The car had an accessible permit on the dash that wasn't hers. She conceded it belonged to her uncle.

Further investigation revealed the uncle was nowhere to be found, and that she worked around the corner.

She was charged and the permit was also seized.

In cases like these, the legitimate permit holder has to apply for a new permit, but only after the case is resolved in court — likely in several months if not longer. 

John Lancaster can be reached at john.lancaster@cbc.ca.

About the Author

John Lancaster

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

John Lancaster is a senior reporter with CBC News focusing on investigative and enterprise journalism. He is a life long resident of Toronto but his stories have taken him across Canada, the US and the Caribbean. His work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and CBC's Marketplace-and of course CBC online and radio. Drop him a line anytime at john.lancaster@cbc.ca.