Police have to see infraction to write a ticket for it

Q: I went to a business and was blocked from parking in a handicapped spot, even though I have a placard. The owner said they had it blocked off for an event. Later I reported it to police. They said they’d talk to the business owner, but I feel like they’re blowing me off. How do I get the police to write the owner a ticket?

A: Sometimes the law doesn’t say exactly what it intends to say. In my first sentence, I’ve already criticized lawmakers and made a giant assumption. Off to an inauspicious start.

The law is clear that it’s not legal for a person without a state-issued placard or special license plate to park in a spot reserved for people with disabilities. Blocking off that same spot with something other than a vehicle though, well, the Revised Code of Washington seems to leave out an important part.

The paragraph titled “Inaccessible access” (a bit of an oxymoron) makes it a parking infraction to “block, or otherwise make inaccessible the access aisle located next to a space reserved for persons with physical disabilities.”

Oddly, blocking the space without blocking the access aisle would seem to be permitted. I presume that wasn’t the intent of the people who wrote that law.

Other states make it clear. For example, California law says, “It is unlawful for any person to obstruct block, or otherwise bar access to those parking stalls or spaces.”

I would hope that anyone charged with enforcing or interpreting this law would lean toward the side of the person with mobility challenges. In contrast, I expect that a violator’s attorney would argue the letter of the law.

To keep things simple let’s say that both the access aisle and the parking spot itself were blocked off for this event. And let’s stipulate that police have no reason to doubt your claim. How do you get them to write that ticket?

You’re not going to like this answer: You can’t. Not because I question your veracity or the willingness of the police to enforce the law, and not because I think what that business owner did was OK; it’s because the law doesn’t allow it. Not the laws about parking for people with disabilities; I’m talking about the one that draws a line on when police can issue an infraction.

That doesn’t just apply to disabled parking. Pick any traffic infraction. Police can’t write a ticket based on a citizen report. By law, an officer has authority to issue a traffic infraction only when: the violation is committed in their presence, when acting at the request of another officer who witnessed the violation, at the scene of a crash (if evidence provides reasonable cause), or when the infraction was captured by an authorized safety camera.

That leaves a lot of violations unenforced. Maybe you don’t like where that line is drawn, but you probably agree there needs to be a line somewhere. Imagine if police issued you a citation based on the statement by your neighbor, who has been out to get you for whatever reason. Your 25 mph might look like 40 mph to a vengeful grouch.

The limits on enforcement of infractions act as a safeguard to protect people from getting a ticket without solid evidence. Imagine a day where we don’t need this law, because no one commits traffic infractions. I can dream.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.