Thefts of handicap placards on the rise in Northern District

Worried about bleeding behind her eyes, Ann Battle went to Union Memorial Hospital and parked her car in the 3300 block of North Calvert Street on June 15.

When she got back to the car, it had been broken into, and the handicap placard hanging from her rear-view mirror had been stolen.

"I panicked. I screamed. I didn't know what to do," said Battle, 66, of Hamilton. "It was disturbing to me. I thought I was parked in a safe zone."

No zone is safe enough these days from smash-and-grab thieves, who are making off with the placards, which police say are one of the hottest items in cars to steal.

Deputy Maj. Richard Worley of the Northern District issued a written warning to the Charles Village Civic Association, the Roland Park Civic League and other community groups, which are publishing the warning in their online newsletters and email blasts.

"I wanted to alert everyone to the newest trend in property crime," says the statement. "The theft of handicap placards from vehicles is on the rise."

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration says it is aware of the problem, although neither the MVA nor police have statistics to quantify it.

The placard thefts or lumped in with all larceny from auto, said Doug Gibson, a community liaison officer for the Northern District.

"We really don't separate them out," Gibson said. "I know it's an ongoing problem."

He said he thinks Worley recognized the problem as he read crime reports.

The Messenger sees many such cases in the Northern District's weekly crime logs. One of those cases was the theft of Battle's placard.

Late last week, the MVA began allowing some law enforcement agencies access its database from their police cruisers to check the identification numbers on placards to see if the drivers are the registered owners of the placards, said MVA spokesman Buel Young.

"I think (the new MVA policy) comes from a sense that there was misuse of the placards," Young said.

He saidPrince George's Countypolice have reported similar problems, not only with the thefts of placards, but with the counterfeiting of them.

The number of permanent placards issued by the state jumped from 147,012 in 2009 to 152,543 in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, he said.

The number of temporary placards issued for 2009-2010 rose from 31,957 to 34,613, he said.

But Gibson said it is still difficult to apprehend those who steal placards or are not authorized to use them.

Drivers must show an identification card issued with the placard, if stopped by police.

The placards are somewhat valuable to thieves, who can sell them, give them to family members, or keep them for themselves, Gibson said.

"They can get a few dollars for them," he said.

A perk of the placards is that they entitle the owners to park in metered or other restricted spaces without paying.

For victims, the biggest repercussion is the hassle of getting a new placard by filing out an MVA VR-210 form at an express or full-service office.

Two weeks after the theft of her placard, "I haven't gotten another one," Battle said. "The first thing I had to do was get my window fixed. I have no idea what I have to do to get (her placard) back. And I've had so many other things to do."

She is furious at the unknown thief.

"Whoever did this made my life very inconvenient," she said.

Worley in his statement said, "If you have a handicap placard, please do not leave it in your vehicle when not in use. Of course, if you need it to justify the use of a handicap parking space, it must be displayed, but when not in use, please remove (it) from the vehicle or at least remove it from plain view."

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