When he could no longer walk 10 feet without a break, Lawrence Boudreau looked for help.
The vascular disease in his legs was worsening. And his wife, Wanda Boudreau, 71, had bad knees and nerve damage from shingles. The Hudson, Florida, couple, who don’t own a car and whose only income is monthly Social Security checks, searched for mobility scooters — which were too expensive.
Then, for $1,600 they found a used golf cart, which research led them to believe is considered a mobility device under the Americans With Disabilities Act. "We just didn’t have the money to afford anything else," said Lawrence, 66.
But in October, Wanda was driving the cart along a U.S. 19 sidewalk when she was given a $164 ticket. In August, she had been given a warning by the same Pasco County sheriff’s deputy.
The Boudreaus said they felt they were allowed to drive the golf cart and that their health qualified them as "disabled" under the federal law. The ADA explainer from the U.S. Department of Justice said a golf cart was considered an "other power-driven mobility device" and that it may be allowed in places it is otherwise not. Lawrence called the Sheriff’s Office to ask if he could use it, and he said he was reassured the couple could.
Clash with Florida law
Wanda had a printout of the ADA guidelines with her when she was ticketed. Still, Sgt. Richard Scilex wrote her up for violating Florida Statute 316.1995, which forbids any non-human-powered vehicle on sidewalks, with the exception of motorized wheelchairs.
"This is not right what you’re doing to us sir, you’re wrong, I’m sorry," she said while he ticketed her, according to a recording she made on her phone.
A Florida statute that outlines golf cart use on the road makes no mention of disability, forbidding the use except in situations where the local government has not made a specific exception. But Lawrence said the ADA information sheet they carry in the cart reads: " … if golf carts are generally prohibited in a park, the park may be required to allow a golf cart when it is being used because of a person’s mobility disability, unless there is a legitimate safety reason that it cannot be accommodated."
Months after their ticket, the Boudreaus tried everything they could think of to toss the ticket and get permission to use the cart. They contacted lawyers. They reached out to the Justice Department, Disability Rights Florida, the State Attorney’s Office and local representatives.
They also pleaded their case in court.
"While the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is sympathetic to Ms. Boudreau’s mobility challenges, the Pasco Sheriff’s Office is unaware of any provision in the Americans With Disabilities Act which allows a person seeking an accommodation to violate the law," said Amanda Hunter, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman.
In the end, the cost of an appeal would be more than the ticket, which they paid on March 18. "We pretty much exhausted every avenue that we possibly can," Lawrence said.
Ann Siegel, legal director for Disability Rights Florida, said even though the ADA was passed decades ago, it’s unevenly applied. Siegel said the ADA cannot be superseded by state statutes. But when that confusion arises, she said it may be time to reevaluate the statute from the lens of those with disabilities.
"I realize these laws are in place for safety, but we often don’t think what will be the fallout," she said.
Every case needs to be looked at on an individual basis — someone without a disability using a golf cart or Segway on a sidewalk is different from a person who needs it, she said. Instead, a hard and fast rule is often applied, she said, and people are penalized or denied equal access.
A Pasco County spokeswoman said it was a Sheriff’s Office concern and nothing in the county ordinances addresses golf carts specifically.
Sonya Walling, a legislative aide for Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano’s office, said she told Lawrence she didn’t know how the ADA would apply. If traffic court found him in violation, there wasn’t much to be done, she said.
State Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, also reviewed the claim but was not able to do much, said Alana Fay, an aide in her office. (Amber Mariano is Jack Mariano’s daughter.)
Fearful of getting another ticket, the Boudreaus have been mostly homebound. Their daughter got them a three-wheel scooter, which Wanda and Lawrence have tipped over on several times.
Because Lawrence takes blood thinners, he said he can’t be getting scraped up and cut too often, so he doesn’t risk the ride.
"It’s been so exasperating for the both of us here, and we’re depressed because we basically can’t get out of the house," he said.
With the coronavirus, they feel even more worried to take the public bus, which can be crowded.
Lawrence said he can use a standard walker, but it’s inefficient for long distances — and embarrassing. When he tries to exercise, he hopes to find private places where people don’t "look at him funny," he said.
Recently, he went to a doctor and got a disability parking permit. His legs have gotten worse because he’s been able to exercise less without leaving the house, he said.
"If you have a disability, you have a reason to be using it," Lawrence said of the cart. "It’s entirely legal and it should not be being persecuted like we’ve been persecuted."