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Woman cries foul over ticket
Police say disabled resident endangers motorists

NORCROSS - Rhonda Wilson lives exactly 1.1 miles from her job - a left turn, a right turn and voila - which is a commute most metro Atlantans would consider a breeze. But that 1.1 miles for Wilson is a harrowing affair.

Born with cerebral palsy, Wilson depends on a purple, three-wheel motorized wheelchair to get around Norcross. In the morning, she whirs out of the Wood Chase Apartment Homes, up a steep sidewalk on Brook Hollow Parkway, then takes a sharp right onto busy Center Way, which is where the situation intensifies.

This is where the sidewalk ends.

The posted 35 mph speed limit on Center Way doesn't always agree with Wilson's 5 mph-maximum scooter. She stays to the right of the white lines, bouncing along in a storm gutter, until she reaches the parking lot of Nanston Dental Group, where she's a patient services rep, she said.

Wilson has braved the route since moving to this pocket of Norcross two years ago. But after a disagreement with Gwinnett police Tuesday morning, Wilson said she's been forced to change her ways. Police contend the woman is endangering herself and motorists.

Just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, Gwinnett police Cpl. J.R. West ticketed Wilson for two violations on Center Way: driving with an expired license and for not having a valid registration. (Police have since voided the latter violation, following a review by legal officials).

Wilson said she was threatened with arrest and told her wheelchair would be impounded should she venture into the roadway again. She's required to appear in Gwinnett Recorder's Court to answer to the charge April 28.

"I'll absolutely go to jail before I pay that ticket," said Wilson, 34.

Wilson argues she's not required to have a driver's license to operate the motorized wheelchair.

Not so, said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer David Schiralli.

After a review, the department concluded Wilson's wheelchair doesn't meet legal criteria to be considered a so-called "electric personal assistive mobility device." Therefore, said Schiralli, she must have a valid driver's license when she's behind the steering column of the C.T.M.-brand wheelchair.

Wilson is lucky not to have also been ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic, Schiralli said. The officer gave her a mere verbal warning for that, he said.

"When she's riding on the roadway, people are forced to go around her," Schiralli said. "She was adamant about putting her safety and the safety of others in question."

According to Georgia law, disabled people can operate the assistive devices on highways that have sidewalks or at least 2-foot-wide separate paths. The law prohibits the devices on roadways unless the posted speed limit is 35 mph or less.

"Rhonda only wanted to go to work. Simple as that," said Julie Daniels, testing coordinator for Disability Services at the University of Georgia and Wilson's former teacher. "She traveled that path for more than two years so that she could make a living."

But during that time, Wilson has gained the dubious reputation as a perennial, slow-moving hazard among police in the Norcross area, Schiralli said. Police have suggested she use the Gwinnett Transit Authority for rides to work (at $3.50 per trip) or travel on a footpath near Center Way, Schiralli said.

"We've tried to help her out, but she doesn't seem to be meeting us halfway," he said. "If she's on the roadway, she has to obey the same rules anybody else does."

Wilson admitted her commute is dangerous. But she can't afford to fork over more than $35 in transit fare. The cheaper Route 20 bus - which has a stop near her apartment complex, just across Brook Hollow Parkway - is off-limits because she can't technically cross the street, she said.

Wilson's fight could begin before her April court date. She plans to file a complaint with the Police Department and notify officials with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability.

"They've got me trapped in this complex," Wilson said. "It's just a shame you're punished for trying to be a productive member of society."