Georgia court rejects property owners’ right to boot unauthorized cars

The age-old practice used by property owners to boot unauthorized vehicles on their premises was dealt a serious blow Tuesday by the state’s highest court.

In a unanimous opinion, the Georgia Supreme Court flatly rejected a shopping mall’s assertion that a law established centuries ago allowed it to immobilize cars and trucks until their owners pay a fine to have the boot removed.

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The ruling is a victory for Forrest Allen, whose tractor-trailer was booted after he parked it in a DeKalb County shopping center in February 2018. After paying a $650 fee to have the boot removed, he filed suit against Wesley Chapel Crossing and several of the mall’s tenants.

The lawsuit is one of about a dozen pending statewide that challenge a property owner’s right to boot unauthorized vehicles.

“We now have the Georgia Supreme Court’s guidance that this practice is illegal,” said Matt Wetherington, one of Allen’s attorneys. He noted that assaults have occurred in parking lots between motorists and those applying the boots.

“Booting as it’s currently practiced is predatory and leads to violence between private citizens in dark parking lots,” Wetherington said. “This decision makes Georgia a safer place.”

A number of municipalities, such as Atlanta, Decatur and Union City, have passed local ordinances that allow unauthorized vehicles to be booted, Wetherington noted. But there are some property owners who are booting cars in areas with no such laws and who are requiring motorists to pay up to $2,600 to have a boot removed, he said.

The Supreme Court’s opinion came as no surprise. During oral arguments in August, Chief Justice David Nahmias called the property owners’ assertions “crazy” and “nutso.”

The property owners largely relied on centuries-old common law that allowed landowners to seize and hold livestock, such as cattle, that trespassed on and damaged their property. Lawyers for Wesley Chapel Crossing argued that that law gives present-day property owners the right to impound an unauthorized motor vehicle.

“We now have the Georgia Supreme Court's guidance that this practice is illegal."

- Matt Wetherington, one of Forrest Allen’s attorneys

But Justice Shawn Ellen LaGrua, who wrote the court’s opinion, said the property owners cited no convincing legal authority to justify a landowner seizing anything other than livestock.

“Indeed, there appears to be no legal authority recognizing a common-law right to immobilize unauthorized vehicles located on private property and hold them against the owner’s will until payment is received,” LaGrua wrote.

Previous AJC coverage

Suit: Booting cars in Georgia isn’t legal

Georgia court doubtful that property owners can boot unauthorized cars

House bill takes aim at booting

Watchdog: if your car’s been booted in Georgia, read this