For Atlanta attorney Stanley Lefco, the decision to park in a spot marked for visitors at Varasano's Pizzeria the night before a 10k race cost him more than a tip. He walked right past a waist-high sign warning what would happen next.
He returned to the parking deck off Peachtree Road to find two heavy-duty metal contraptions on the wheels of his car. Removing the "boots" cost $75, the maximum allowed by city ordinance.
"We all know the bootman is not going to let me go without the money," Lefco wrote in an essay about the incident.
A chorus of local residents say aggressive booting on private parking lots in Atlanta should be tamed, and some city officials agree. But others caution that frustrated drivers' best recourse is to the landlords, parking operators and booting companies that orchestrate impoundments on private property.
City Councilman Kwanza Hall is pushing for an ordinance that would add requirements for the more than dozen companies licensed to boot vehicles in Atlanta. Electronic payment boxes would have to dispense receipts, replacing the old "honor boxes" that take cash through slots but don't issue proof of payment for parking.
"That would be a huge leap forward," said Hall, whose district includes downtown and parts of Midtown. "I'm just trying to come up with a solution that really works."
Some executives at booting companies say their crews are simply abiding by the terms of their contracts with the property owners. The goal is to protect the valuable parking spots for merchants who might otherwise see their spots occupied by noncustomers, several executives said.
"We're constantly training our guys in how to deal with people," said Mike Jacob, co-owner of Advanced Booting Services, which was founded 14 years ago in Atlanta. "Nobody's happy to get a boot. It's just a simple courtesy to explain to people exactly why their car was booted.
"It's a tough job, but it's a necessity out there," Jacob said. "And it's a much kinder alternative than being towed."
Currently, 17 companies have permits to boot vehicles in Atlanta, according to statistics from the Atlanta Police Department, which issues the permits. The ordinance governing vehicle immobilization requires clear signs warning drivers that they could be booted.
Hall said his goal was not to outlaw booting in the city. That would just lead to more towing, he said.
It's not clear if the City Council or Mayor Kasim Reed will support Hall's push for new regulations.
Duriya Farooqui, who reports to Reed as the city's chief operating officer, said she was open to proposals but concerned about unintended consequences. If the city got more involved in regulating the private booting industry, it could cost police manpower and add thousands of dollars in costs to some small businesses that own parking lots, she said.
"The city would have to be very thoughtful" about considering any new regulations, Farooqui said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Private business have contractual relationships with private vendors. The question would be, when should government intervene? Something that seems like a simple solution might not be. A strong case would need to be made."
That caution is unlikely to soothe some residents. Nima Patel, a 24-year-old Stockbridge resident, said she parked at the Starbucks lot on 14th Street, then decided she preferred a bagel at Einstein Bros. next door. She bought the bagel and then returned to Starbucks.
It was a few hours before she noticed the boot on her car. The parking technician had taken video footage of Patel as she left the lot, and said it was a violation of the "in and out" policy. He didn't budge on the $75 fee, even when Patel called the police.
"I told him I went right next door and came right back," Patel said. "This is just way too unfair. I feel bullied and deceived."
Larry Cohen, a board member of the International Parking Institute, said the frustration is often misdirected.
"The booting company is being contracted to provide a service under the direction of the owner or the manager of the property," said Cohen, executive director of the parking authority in Lancaster, Pa. "If they're taking the heat on it, they're probably the wrong people. They're the front-line folks who are taking the brunt of the complaints and the venom in that situation, but someone is setting a policy and procedure for that property."
Several of Atlanta's neighbors limited the operation of booting companies. Cobb County banned booting entirely in its unincorporated areas in 2004, and Gwinnett County did the same in 2007.
Cherokee County commissioners voted unanimously last year to ban the use of parking boots by private companies. That came after customers at an Acworth McDonald's said they were booted while inside the restaurant and had to pay a $500 release fee.
Jeff Varasano, owner of Varasano's Pizzeria, said unclear signs and swift booting in the nearby parking deck have caused big headaches.
He has endured tirades from customers and dished out a few in the direction of the booting technician. In four cases, he paid for boots to be removed from customers' vehicles. He was booted himself.
"I've had investors come to the restaurant and get booted," said Varasano, who said he planned to urge his landlord to end the practice. "It's crazy. It was almost every night for a while."