City Council promotes vigilantism

Samian Quazi

Austin City Council granted preliminary approval Thursday to a measure targeted against disabled parking violators. The council plans to allow members of the public to photograph and report cars illegally parked in disabled spots using a smartphone application. UT students and Austinites in general should note this serious infringement of civil liberties. This measure will inevitably lead to gross abuses and promote vigilantism among city residents.

Motorists illegally parking in disabled spots has become a chronic problem for the city: KVUE reports that 2,115 citations were issued last year to violators, which fails to count those who didn’t get caught. According to Community Impact Newspaper, a Travis County study also found that “65 percent of handicapped placards were being used by people that were not assigned them.”

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and council members Chris Riley and Mike Martinez proposed a radical solution to curb disabled parking abuse: Using a smartphone, Austinites would be able to take photos of the offending cars that would immediately be forwarded to the city. Similar to the red-light cameras, the vehicle’s registered owner can look forward to a ticket in the mail.

Handicapped motorists are undeniably justified by feeling exasperated when they seek a coveted parking spot downtown, only to find a spot designated for them illegally occupied by a non-qualifying driver. By parking in non-handicapped spots as their fallback option, these motorists are at a greater risk of being hurt by an unaware motorist on the road.

Yet the concept of civilians — instead of uniformed and credentialed security officers — carrying out the brunt of law enforcement only opens up a Pandora’s Box of vigilantism. I can hardly imagine a city resident not feeling the least bit peeved if he looked out the window and thought he saw someone taking multiple photographs of his car. If the council needed a clearer way to breed distrust among Austinites, I can’t think of one. And a parking lot altercation in which someone’s iPhone gets smashed, if not worse, isn’t inconceivable.

The measure also implicitly discriminates among wage-earners by giving an additional tool to dispense civic justice in the hands of those who can afford it. Poorer Austinites — including me — who lack the financial wherewithal to buy a smartphone along with the added Internet bills to “snap and send” alleged violators to the city are at an unfair disadvantage. I anticipate that most of these application’s citations will come from better-off neighborhoods and crowded parts of downtown. Handicapped spots in less well-to-do communities, on the other hand, will gain no benefit.

I perused the application’s “How It Works” website to better understand what an individual could do. A person who wants to report an illegally parked vehicle needs to take photos of the offending vehicle’s license plate, the front windshield and both the vehicle and the disabled parking sign, according to the website of the application, Parking Mobility. Parking Mobility itself would immediately plug in additional information and forward the necessary information to the city.

To sweeten the deal, Parking Mobility would allow the city to send 20 percent of the fine to the photographer’s charity of choice. Some of the charities listed as examples on Parking Mobility’s site are nonprofit giants such as United Way and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. There is no harm in benefiting charities, but I wonder whether this will stoke zeal in these nonprofits and their most ardent supporters to go after any and all purported parking violators at the drop of a hat.

Concerned citizens who spot an offending vehicle already have a wide venue of legal mechanisms to curb offenses. They could write the license plate number down and report it via phone to the Austin Police Department. Once inside the building, they could pull over a security officer and have that officer inspect in person the validity of that vehicle’s parking. In any case, professional law enforcement authorities are paid to do their jobs, and any efforts to encroach on their scope of practice is dangerous for us all.

In an era of Photoshop and shrewd photography techniques, this measure will inevitably lead to abuse and misuse. Improper and deceptive angling of a camera, for instance, can fool many into believing a properly parked car happened to illegally be in a handicap area. Let’s leave the issuance of citations to the police instead of letting technology get the best of our personal wisdom. The council has less than 90 days to bring the measure for a final vote, according to KXAN, and it should reject it outright.

Quazi is a nursing graduate student.