It was just after noon on a recent weekday, the parking lots at the Annapolis Westfield Mall were already full, and a woman in a dark sedan weaved through the swelling traffic, looking for a place to park.

Jessica Lawrence, a Glen Burnie resident, saw what she was looking for — a single, empty handicapped space near the front entrance to Sears.

She pulled in, killed the engine and breathed an apparent sigh of relief.

Then Cpl. Mark Camm appeared on the scene.

"May I see your ID?" he asked.

Camm, a 25-year veteran of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, is the lead officer on Operation HIDE, a countywide mission aimed at nabbing those who use handicapped parking spaces illegally.

Lawrence, it turned out, had the required blue-and-white handicapped placard on hand. Problem was, it belonged to her mother, who was inside the mall shopping. Lawrence said she was there to give her a ride home.

Camm jotted out a citation that could cost her $140 in fines and add 12 points to her driver's license.

"It's not that we're trying to trap anybody. We're trying to make sure these spaces are open for the people who really need them," he said, returning to his unmarked car for two more hours of surveillance.

The brainchild of Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, Operation HIDE (it stands for Handicapped ID Enforcement) targets the able-bodied who use state-issued placards belonging to others, display the placards but lack the wallet-size ID they're required to have on hand, or pull into the spaces with no permit at all (a county violation that can cost $500).

Officers on the beat say they get every reaction in the book, from sincere apologies to emotional, blame-shifting rants. They often hear that violators didn't understand the rules, are only there to pick up a handicapped person inside the mall (usually their mother) or were sure their expired placard was up to date.

One rationalization, the program's officers say, borders on the epidemic: "I'm only here for a minute."

"Well, what if a handicapped individual only has a minute?" asks Leopold, who started the momentum for the operation in 2007 when he backed a bill that stiffened penalties for violations, boosting the top fine for county offenses from $50 to $500.

The Republican executive says he has been an advocate for the disabled since President George H.W. Bush appointed him to the National Council on Disability, a federal agency, in 1991.

"I just took to it," Leopold says. "It's not something everyone thinks about, but it's important."

Camm's motivation runs deeper. His late mother, who suffered complications from emphysema, had trouble walking during her later years, and she often called her son at the station to report that someone had taken her reserved space in the parking lot of her Annapolis apartment complex.

"That kind of thing gets you emotional," says Camm, traffic enforcement coordinator for the county's Southern District, with a tight smile. "I mean, everyone loves their mother."

Such experiences made Camm a natural to shepherd Operation HIDE, which started out as Operation Access in 2007.

At that time, it covered only the most flagrant of violations: the kind in which drivers with no handicapped license tag or portable handicapped placard simply pull into a handicapped space and use it.