The worse news: The city isn't really trying to catch them anymore.
That was the upshot of a city of Seattle audit released late last month looking at how the Seattle Department of Transportation is policing disabled parking placard abuse. Or not policing it, as it turns out.
According to the audit, a recent change in state law has made it impossible for police to confiscate disabled parking placards that are being misused and very difficult to track offenders. In the past two years, the Seattle Police Department parking enforcement unit tasked to look for placard abuse was also disbanded.
In 2010, city parking enforcement officers issued 446 citations to drivers thought to be abusing the parking privilege meant give some relief to the city's disabled residents and visitors. In the first eight months of 2012, that figure had fallen to 10 citations.
Annoyance aside, placard abusers are costing the city millions of dollars in lost revenue, according to the City Auditor's Office report. Auditors estimate the cost could be as much as $1.4 million annually, if the spaces at issue were filled by paying parkers.
State law allows anyone with a valid disabled parking placard to park for free on city streets. A concern, though, is that friends and relatives of disabled people are using the parking placards, sometimes after placard holder has died.
Seattle police estimate 60 percent of the disabled placards on city streets are being used fraudulently. Other cities that have spent more time investigating the phenomena have found fraud rates as high as 90 percent.
Going from unofficial estimates that 20 to 30 percent of all paid parking spaces in downtown and First Hill are occupied by cars displaying the placards, the city auditors contend 12 percent of all cars parked in those areas are getting an unfair free ride.
City auditors point to two causes for the decrease - the state law change, and the elimination of the SPD placard enforcement unit. Higher parking rates also appear to be driving fraudulent placard use.
In 2010, the Legislature downgraded the penalties for wrongly displaying a disabled parking placard, moving the offense from being a traffic violation to a parking citation. The change meant investigators can no longer seize the offending placard or identify the parker, which makes it difficult to track repeat offenders.
Following that change, the Seattle Police Department disbanded the part of its parking enforcement unit previously dedicated to finding and punishing those abusing the placards. All the members of that task force were lost to attrition or promotion by the end of 2012.
In the years before the change, parking enforcement officers and police issued more than 400 tickets annually. Since then, enforcement has effectively ceased; according to the audit, only 94 parkers were cited in 2011, and that number dropped dramatically in 2012.
According to the audit, city police and transportation officials faulted the state Department of Licensing for its management of the parking placards.
"An effort to significantly reduce disabled parking abuse may require a thorough review and redesign of the complicated state system that relies on input from medical providers," the city auditors said in their report. "However, city officials agree that there are some additional steps that the city could take that may discourage the unauthorized use of disabled placards."
High among the auditors' recommendations is that city and King County take steps to ensure that public employees who abuse the system pay their fines on time. Auditors also suggested city parking enforcement officers can be tasked with emphasis patrols targeting the problem.