The deputy is doling out mostly warnings for people illegally parked in handicap spots, but citations could follow.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- People who've met Richard Boyle over the past nine months either love him or hate him.
"I've got people who come up and shake my hand and want me to sign autographs," the 55-year-old Austintown man said. "Other people can't stand me. They call me every name in the book."
Boyle is Mahoning County's handicap-parking enforcement officer. His job is to patrol parking lots across the county, looking for vehicles illegally parked in spots reserved for people with disabilities.
As a deputy sheriff, he has authority to cite those people into court, where they could be fined up to $500. He hasn't issued many citations since he started in September, but that will change.
"Our main objective at this point is to increase awareness," said Sheriff Randall Wellington. "We're more or less in a prevention mode right now."
Confronts offenders: Most offenders are let off with a warning, especially if it's their first violation, Boyle said. When he sees a vehicle in a handicap spot, without the required placard or license plate, he waits for the driver to come out.
Sometimes it's an honest mistake -- a disabled person who simply forgot to display the placard. In those cases, he simply reminds them and goes on his way.
In most cases, though, it's someone who is not disabled and parked in the spot simply because it's closest to the store or other business they're visiting. Usually, the offender apologizes and moves his or her vehicle. Others give Boyle a hard time and offer up excuses.
"I try not to get an attitude with them, but sometimes it just overwhelms me," Boyle said.
Marty Martinek of Cornersburg is one of those who stands squarely in Boyle's corner. Disabled himself, Martinek said it's high time someone stands up for the disabled in this issue.
He serves as a consultant to Mahoning County commissioners on issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It's very irritating, but what can you do?" he said of seeing people without disabilities parked in handicap spots. He gets especially angry when it happens during a rainstorm.
Martinek can drive but must use a wheelchair to get around. Once he parks his car, he's got to get the wheelchair out, get in it and get across the parking lot.
"If that other guy parks in a regular spot and has to walk a little farther, yeah, he's going to get wet," Martinek said. "But I'm going to get drenched because I can't move that fast."
Faced same problems: Boyle knows firsthand how the disabled feel when they see a healthy person wheel into a handicap spot and run into a store. He was hurt in a construction accident in July 1996, suffering a spinal cord injury that left the lower half of his body paralyzed.
He has since recovered to the point that he can walk with a cane, but still must drive a car with hand controls because he is unable to operate the gas pedal and brake with his feet.
It was when he started driving again that he began to notice how many people use handicap spaces out of convenience instead of necessity. It incensed him to the point that he pushed for -- and helped write -- legislation that allowed for creation of parking districts to enforce handicap parking.
"He's our man," said Major Michael Budd of the sheriff's department. "We stand behind him in what he's doing out there."
Boyle patrols the entire county with the exception of Boardman Township, which enforces rules in its own parking district. He doesn't keep regular hours and tries to mix up the days and times he visits certain areas.
That way, people never know whether he's going to show up, so drivers might think twice about parking in a handicap spot.
Evidence: When Boyle writes a citation, he also takes a photograph of the illegally parked vehicle and attaches it to the ticket. So far, all but one citation has held up in court, Budd said.
One case was dismissed because the driver correctly argued that the space wasn't properly marked according to the state's guidelines.
That case prompted Boyle to begin checking to ensure that handicap-parking spaces are properly marked. He's found several that aren't and has informed the property owners of the regulations.
"Some of the merchants aren't very cooperative," Wellington said. "They don't want to fix the signs." Most, though, comply without complaint, he added.