Feeder was doing a little detective work on a recent Thursday afternoon in Oakland's downtown Civic Center area, home to City Hall and most other city, state, and federal government buildings. On the block of 12th Street between MLK Jr. Way and Jefferson Avenue, he noticed that fifteen of the twenty cars parked at metered spaces were displaying handicap-parking placards from their rearview mirrors. (That's 75 percent, all you math dropouts.) The meters for all fifteen spaces were expired, and that's because disabled drivers get to park for free in metered spots. But in all likelihood, many of these drivers weren't disabled at all. And chances are a number of them work in the government edifices nearby.
Handicap-parking fraud is hardly unique to Oakland. Back in the days when Feeder worked in San Jose, for instance, a parking enforcement Deep Throat told him the blue placards are sometimes called "blue gold" -- because the permits are worth more than their weight in free-parking bullion. But Oakland's Civic Center is apparently the local mecca for this particular illegal activity. "The downtown area has the most office buildings, so more people are concentrated into a small area," explains Oakland car cop Sergeant Fausto Melara. "Parking is at a premium, especially free parking."
Five months ago, Melara and his team did a sting in the Civic Center area -- including one notorious block next to City Hall -- with a KTVU news crew in tow. In two mornings, the police issued more than forty misdemeanor citations to drivers displaying handicap placards not issued to them. In most cases, the permit belonged to an elderly, disabled, or even deceased relative of the able-bodied but ethically handicapped driver. Among those cited, Melara says, were three IRS employees and at least two city employees, including Deputy City Auditor Sylvia deWitt, who told police the placard belonged to a niece she had dropped off earlier in the day. Her bust was especially ironic: It's the auditor's job to find ways for the city to save money and generate extra revenue, and here was his deputy shorting the city quarters from its parking meters.
Lost revenue isn't the only problem. Genuinely disabled people (and nondisabled columnists) are being cheated out of prime on-street parking spots. According to Melara, the legitimately disabled drivers questioned by police during their sting "were always appreciative."
The penalties for fraudulent use of a handicap placard are pretty stiff. According to the sergeant, three people cited who had prior criminal records did jail time as a result of the sting; others were fined up to $1,000. Last month deWitt agreed to probation and $270 in fines, court records show.
But not all of the forty-plus cases have been resolved. A judge issued a $2,500 bench warrant for one alleged lawbreaker who missed her court date. Feeder managed to find her pretty easily, though. After all, Stefanie Dugan Lowe is an administrative services manager in Oakland's Environmental Services Division. Reached at work, Lowe claimed she had no idea what Feeder was talking about. She said she couldn't remember being cited in the first place, let alone missing a court date, and vowed to go down to the courthouse to clear things up.
Despite the stiff penalties, Feeder's recent survey of the situation on 12th Street suggests that the problem hasn't gone away. But let the faux handicapped beware: The OPD says it's planning another sting in the very near future.
Although he isn't on TV as much as he used to be, Jim Rogers, the self-proclaimed "People's Lawyer," is still the Bay Area's most famous personal-injury lawyer. He also is probably the most hated one, judging from what his competitors and even some former clients say about him. In the past, Rogers has reasoned that he is a victim of the law of averages: With such a large caseload -- he boasts of handling more than a thousand cases at a time -- there are bound to be a few unhappy customers. And, well, his clients are sometimes, shall we say, difficult and not terribly sophisticated. Y'know, the kind of people who hire a lawyer because they saw him on TV.
One disgruntled ex-client, local handyman Jerry Lewis, filed a malpractice suit against Rogers' law office three weeks ago. Lewis had hired the People's Lawyer after breaking his arm in June 2001 while fixing the roof of a 53rd Street apartment building in Oakland. According to Lewis' new attorney, Allan Tabor, Rogers screwed up the case by suing the property owner in what's called a "limited jurisdiction" court that caps awards at a paltry $25,000. Tabor says Lewis' medical bills alone eventually totaled $69,000. He contends that the injury case should have been filed in an "unlimited jurisdiction" venue, which caps awards at $1 million. Lewis wound up settling for $15,000, way below what he should have gotten, Tabor claims. So now he and his client are trying to make up the difference by suing Rogers.
Rogers, however, says Lewis kept changing his story: At first, he claimed that he fell through a faulty roof; later, he blamed a rickety ladder. It wasn't the kind of slam-dunk case to take to a higher-stakes court where defense attorneys would be more aggressive. Rogers, who moonlights as a member of the Richmond City Council, says he quit the case because he couldn't "in good conscience" go forward with it. Lewis "had a lot of problems," he says, "which became apparent as the case went on."
Tabor contends that Rogers quit because the other side vowed to put up a fight. In any event, it's undisputed that after Rogers bailed out, his former client missed the trial date because -- and this is no joke -- Jerry Lewis was in jail. Not that incarceration would in and of itself keep Rogers from handling someone's case. "I have clients in jail, and people in jail who would like to hire me," the People's Lawyer says.
With time running out for state ballot initiatives to qualify for the November ballot, signature-gatherers were out in force at the Ashby Flea Market on a recent Saturday. One initiative-peddler holding a clipboard asked for signatures at first and then discreetly mumbled to select passersby, "Need a chunk of hash?" If Feeder hadn't already been so stoned he might've asked the guy what initiative he was pushing.
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