A disabled woman named Denise, who prefers not to give her last name, paid a $250 penalty plus court fees after appearing in Secaucus Municipal Court last week. She apparently parked in a handicapped access area of the Walmart parking lot, but did not realize it wasn’t meant for her.
She said her resulting ordeal was “unjust” and “inhumane” for someone who lives with a disability.
“Secaucus is a town I had been shopping in for more than three decades with my family and friends, but where I refuse to ever shop again,” said Denise, who lives in Bergen County and used to shop in Secaucus up to three times a week.
On a shopping trip during the past July 4 weekend shortly after her mother passed, Denise found herself circling the Secaucus Walmart parking lot looking for a handicapped space.
“We don’t want to stop people with disabilities from parking anywhere.” – David Drumeler
“I parked in the blue lined space next to a handicapped spot. I didn’t see a sign posted not to,” she said. “I also made certain to park as close to the designated handicapped space as possible, keeping in mind the extra space [users] need in case a walker, wheelchair or other extra space was needed.”
When she returned to her car, she said she found a ticket that mandated a court appearance.
According to the state’s Guide to Handicapped Parking, the striped area next to the parking spaces is called an access aisle and is strictly off limits for parking to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a handicapped parking plate or placard. The access aisle must be in place in order to ensure that people who use wheelchairs have room to transfer in and out of their vehicles. A first violation fine for parking in the access aisle or in a handicapped space is $250.
Denise chose to plead not guilty, which required two court appearances. During the second court appearance she said she experienced insensitivity toward her condition not only in the experience of going to court but also in how she was treated by Judge Kathleen Walrod.
Denise suffers from chronic inflammation of the brain, an autoimmune disorder with very little known about it. She said she is one of eight people in the world who has been treated at the Mayo Clinic for this rare disorder.
“I’ve been hospitalized five or six times because of this illness and because of side effects of medication,” said Denise.
The illness limits her ability to walk, stand, and participate in most physical activity. She has to use a motorized car or electronic shopping cart, especially when she goes shopping in places like Walmart. Denise also has a condition called avascular neucrosis, which makes standing physically grueling.
On the day of her court appearance, she arrived at 4:30 p.m., an hour early, to park in one of the two handicapped spots available in the top lot of the municipal building. The town’s municipal building has 49 parking spaces in the top lot with two designated handicapped spots and 25 parking spaces in the lower lot, with one designated handicapped spot, which is within state regulation.
After parking, Denise said she had trouble with the doors to the municipal building because they don’t automatically open.
“I actually tried to bring [my] walker in. It was so hard opening the door. I got frustrated and had to put it back in [my] car,” said Denise.
“Automatic door openers are not a requirement,” said Assemblyman and construction official Vincent Prieto.
After navigating the parking spaces and the doors, Denise said she spent up to three hours at the court between the time she waited outside for court to begin and the time she sat and waited inside to speak with the judge.
“I have trouble sitting for long periods of time. For me sitting on a hard surface is so grueling on my body, I’m in pain for days afterwards,” said Denise.
Linda Seufert, court administrator, said court began around 6 p.m. and went to about 8 p.m.
“We have to run court by court rule,” said Seufert. “The attorneys always go first, then we do prisoners, then first appearances, then we do trials, but that is all done by court rule.”
She said that if an individual is disabled the judge tries to see them first and get them out. “If they are pleading not guilty, it may take a little longer,” said Seufert.
Denise said that several people were in court that day for the same reason she was.
She said Judge Walrod told all of the people gathered with a similar violation that regardless of their reason, all would be required to pay a penalty of $250 plus court fees.
“I watched as people who were clearly handicapped with walkers, crutches, and true physical problems plead their case of necessity for parking in the blue striped handicapped zone,” she said. “As they went before the judge, there was no leniency given, absolutely no acceptance of their case for being in the violation.”
Walrod did not return calls to be interviewed last week.
“When it was my turn to plead guilty, my request to pay installments was denied,” said Denise.
According to the court administrator, Judge Walrod heard 12 handicapped violation cases that day. It is unknown how many of those people were disabled themselves.
“We have always had violations for handicapped parking,” said Seufert. “I believe there is an increase [recently].”
The town said that last month, they alerted law enforcement to begin issuing more tickets to cars illegally parked in the blue striped handicapped access aisle after a person who required wheelchair access was forced to wait two hours to get back into their car at Walmart. A different car was blocking their car.
“We are not trying to inconvenience handicapped folks,” said Town Administrator David Drumeler. He said the issue is really about wheelchair accessible spaces in places like Walmart and Sam’s club. “We don’t want to stop people with disabilities from parking anywhere. The only issue is parking in designated spaces to allow appropriate wheelchair access.”
Drumeler said the town is trying to address the issue to help people park appropriately at Walmart and Sam’s Club by erecting giant, red metal signs that say “Wheelchair drop off.” The signs were being installed last week and will make it clear that no one, even people with handicapped placards, can park in the access aisle unless dropping off a wheelchair.
But Denise wants to see more changes.
“We don't need those [stiff fines],” she said. “We struggle every day to pay for bills that we used to pay more easily before we became disabled. I work part-time because I have to – or I lose my home, my car, and my freedom to live.”
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at email@example.com.