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Can you park for free with a handicap placard in California?

Having a disability that impacts mobility can make parking challenging. Getting a disabled placard allows people with disabilities to park in designated accessible parking spots, but does it allow for free parking anywhere in California? The answer depends on the location and situation. This article will examine the laws and regulations around using disabled placards for free parking in California.

California State Law on Disabled Parking Placards

In California, disabled parking placards (also called DP placards) are governed by the California Vehicle Code Section 295.5. This law allows vehicles displaying a valid DP placard to park for unlimited periods in parking zones restricted as to length of time parking is permitted.

However, this unlimited free parking only applies to on-street metered parking spots. The law does not require private businesses or other off-street parking facilities to offer free parking to disabled placard holders.

Key Points of California’s Disabled Parking Placard Law

  • Allows people with disabilities to park in designated accessible parking spots
  • DP placard vehicles can park for unlimited time at metered on-street parking
  • Does NOT require free parking at off-street lots/garages or private businesses
  • Local jurisdictions may have additional disabled parking rules or restrictions

So in summary, state law provides free unlimited parking at metered street spots, but does not address parking fees at other locations. Local city and county governments may have additional disabled parking rules in their jurisdictions.

Do You Have to Pay for Parking in Private Lots and Garages?

Under California state law, private businesses and commercial parking facilities (like garages, lots, etc) are NOT required to offer free parking to vehicles with disabled placards. It is up to each individual business or local jurisdiction to decide their disabled parking policy.

Some major parking situations and whether free parking is typically offered:

Parking Location Typical Policy
Shopping mall parking lots Must pay to park unless mall policy allows free disabled parking
Grocery store parking lots Must pay to park unless store policy allows free disabled parking
Private parking garages Must pay to park unless garage policy allows free disabled parking
Stadiums and entertainment venues Must pay to park unless venue policy allows free disabled parking
Restaurants Must pay to park unless restaurant policy allows free disabled parking

As you can see, in most private businesses and parking facilities, vehicles with disabled placards must pay to park unless that specific location has voluntarily chosen to offer free disabled parking. Under state law, they are not obligated to provide it.

Some cities in California have local ordinances requiring free disabled parking at additional locations beyond what state law mandates. But unless required by a local rule, private parking fees generally still apply to placard holders.

Exceptions Where Free Parking with a Disabled Placard is Often Allowed

While private lots can charge for parking, there are some locations where placard holders are often allowed to park for free, such as:

  • Government buildings and facilities
  • Public libraries
  • Hospitals
  • Airports
  • DMV offices
  • Public parks
  • Curbside parking meters

These tend to be government or public entities that choose to offer disabled parking accommodations beyond what the law strictly requires. Always check with the individual establishment, as their disabled parking policies can vary.

Municipalities also sometimes offer free disabled parking in select areas, like a certain downtown district. Your local parking authority may provide guidance on where disabled placard holders can park for free in public areas.

Metered Street Parking is Free

The one area that California state law does require unlimited free parking with a disabled placard is at metered street parking spots.

California Vehicle Code Section 295.5 says vehicles displaying a valid disabled placard or license plate can park at on-street meters without being subject to any time limits and without having to pay the meter. This applies to any metered parking space on public streets in California.

However, you still must abide by other posted parking limitations such as residential permit zones, no parking periods for street cleaning, or other non-meter parking restrictions. The placard essentially waives the hourly time limit and payment requirement at meters only.

Free Disabled Parking Policies in Major California Cities

Some larger California cities have enacted local ordinances that expand free disabled parking beyond just street meters, while still allowing private businesses to set their own policies. Here are some examples:

Los Angeles

  • Free parking at meters
  • Free parking in City-owned lots and garages
  • Free parking at colored curb zones
  • Private lots can set own disabled parking fees

San Francisco

  • Free parking at meters
  • Free parking in City-owned garages
  • Private garages and lots can set own fees

San Diego

  • Free parking at meters
  • 2 hours free parking in City lots/garages
  • Private facilities set own policy

As you can see, some major cities like LA and SF go beyond the state law by offering additional free parking options at city-owned locations. But private businesses can still charge for parking if they choose.

ADA Requirements for Disabled Parking

In addition to California state law, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has mandates regarding accessible disabled parking. The ADA requires a certain number of accessible spaces with wider dimensions, aisles, and signage in most public and private parking facilities.

However, while setting accessibility requirements, the ADA does not require that accessible spaces be provided free of charge. Parking fees are still allowed even for the dedicated accessible spots.

So while the ADA governs the design and quantity of accessible spaces, it does not regulate whether or not disabled individuals must pay to use them. The exception is government facilities – government entities are required to provide free disabled parking.

Exceptions to Normal Parking Rules

While not always free, having a disabled placard does allow some exceptions to normal parking rules, including:

Exception What’s Allowed
Time Limits Can park longer than posted time limit
No Parking Zones May park if not blocking access (except colored curbs)
Street Sweeping Can park in street sweeping zone

So even at spots where payment is still required, having a disabled placard offers much more flexibility with parking time limits and restrictions (except for colored curb zones which are still prohibited).

Tips for Maximizing Free Parking with a Disabled Placard in California

While private businesses can charge for parking, here are some tips for placard holders to maximize free parking opportunities:

  • Always park at meters on public streets for unlimited free parking
  • Check with your city parking authority for free disabled parking areas
  • Ask businesses if they offer free disabled parking before parking there
  • Look for nearby city or government-owned garages which may offer free parking
  • Consider taking public transportation or ride-share to avoid parking hassles and fees

Knowing where you are most likely to get free parking based on state and local policies can help disabled drivers better plan their trips and parking options.

Penalties for Misusing Disabled Placards

It’s important to keep in mind that disabled placards are only to be used by the authorized disabled individual. Violating the usage conditions can result in placard revocation and penalties:

  • 1st offense – $250 fine
  • 2nd offense – $500 fine
  • 3rd+ offense – Misdemeanor up to $1,000 fine and 6 months jail

Disabled placards are a privilege intended only for those who genuinely need accessible parking accommodations. Any misuse eliminates spaces for those who truly need them.


While having a disabled placard allows great parking flexibility and free unlimited parking at meters, it does not automatically exempt the holder from all parking fees in California. Under state law, private businesses can still charge for parking if they choose. However, government facilities, public parks, airports and other entities often allow free disabled parking as a courtesy. Checking municipal policies, business signage, and utilizing on-street meter parking is key to maximizing opportunities for free disabled parking. Strict penalties also discourage placard abuse. With knowledge of the policies, those with valid placards can best utilize their parking privileges.