A yearlong investigation by the state inspector general and the Registry of Motor Vehicles has turned up widespread abuse of the placards that allow people with disabilities to park all day in designated spots and free of charge at meters across the state.
Investigators focusing on three Boston commercial districts where parking is particularly scarce -- North Station, Newbury Street, and the Financial District -- found nearly a third of the roughly 1,000 placards they saw on vehicles were being used by people who were not disabled and had been issued to someone else.
Forty-nine placards were used repeatedly even though the registered holder of the permit had died -- in some cases several years ago. Nine placards had been renewed since the person's death.
At a time when an aging population has an ever-increasing need for the permits, the misuse of spots and placards for the disabled is "an unconscionable insult and a fraud," said Inspector General Gregory Sullivan.
Registry officials, who will announce the findings at a news conference today, said abuse of the placards is a rampant problem that is getting worse.
"It's universally appalling when someone commits a fraud and takes a space from someone who needs it or takes a space for their own immediate convenience, not thinking about the other folks who have need for it," said Anne L. Collins, the registrar of motor vehicles. "It's the lowest level of scoundrel in the assortment of motor vehicle offenders we see."
Registry officials will announce changes today aimed at cracking down on the abuse.
Among the violators issued citations were:
A Brockton woman who inherited her well-worn placard from her mother, who got it from her now-deceased mother.
The operators of a spa on the first block of Newbury Street who left their vehicle for hours at meters near the spa using a placard issued to a 78-year-old relative. They were spotted by investigators 10 times.
A career planning specialist at the Blaine School of Cosmetology, who swore she used someone else's placard just twice -- the two times troopers spotted her vehicle parked in a handicapped zone near the school's Downtown Crossing location.
In the weeks leading to the report's release, investigators from the inspector general's office and State Police Sergeant Sean Gately tracked the drivers, confronting them with cameras rolling.
Some confessed immediately. "It was my uncle's," admitted Joseph Sterling of Braintree, whom investigators observed parking his pickup in a handicapped spot in the Financial District 20 times.
Some, according to investigators, denied having the placards, which they stuffed into the glove compartment as soon as they got into their cars.
A few drivers tried to defend themselves.
Tristan Rock, 32, of Stoneham acknowledged the placard belonged to a "friend of the family" but insisted he deserved to use it, investigators said. "I had surgery on my knee," he said, rolling up his pant leg to show the trooper his scars. Others said little, turning over the card when the trooper asked for it.
Of 18 people stopped by investigators, one had a legitimate reason to display the placard: He was driving his disabled mother, the registered holder.
Most of the drivers said the placard they were using belonged to a relative or a friend, which is in violation of rules. Each violator was forced to surrender the permit and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Their licenses were suspended for 30 days.
Some have asked authorities to return the placards, according to Registry spokeswoman Ann Dufresne, who said decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.
Most of the violators could not be reached for comment.
Rock said he didn't realize that it was illegal to use someone else's placard and that he has since applied for his own. "As lame as that sounds, I was not aware of that," he said. "I'd frown upon it myself if I ever saw somebody do that. It seems hypocritical, but I do have legitimate medical reasons."
Officials said they launched the investigation after receiving complaints last summer that some drivers were abusing the placards.
The Registry issues the permits to individuals who submit proof they have difficulty walking or have certain debilitating illnesses.
According to Sullivan, researchers fanned out on weekdays last year from mid-June to mid-July, and again this year between June 25 and Aug. 9 to collect data. They recorded data about the placard, the type of car, the location, date, and time the vehicles were observed. They also took photos.
They then compiled a database of the 965 placards they saw, documenting each of the 3,819 times they were observed being used, and detailing information about the registered owner of the vehicle and the person who had applied for the placard.
They narrowed down the list to 300 placards that seemed the most suspicious and set out to catch the offenders in the act, Sullivan said.
A placard would land on the target list if, for example, it had been issued to an 85-year-old woman living in a nursing home, but was seen hanging from the rearview mirror of a Mercedes parked on Newbury Street most afternoons by investigators who canvassed the area.
A few violators were caught by troopers even though they were not on the inspector general's list, officers said.
According to Registry officials, the number of disability placards in Massachusetts has skyrocketed in recent years, from 135,238 in June 2001 to 272,046 in December 2006.
The Registry has implemented some changes, including a new system for filing complaints of suspected abuse. A form is available on the agency's website.
"It's incredibly unfortunate that people would misuse these essential placards, particularly in light of how limited the number of accessible parking spots [is] in the city and elsewhere," said Stan Eichner, a lawyer with the Disability Law Center.
Andrea Estes can be reached at email@example.com.