Unlocked: How one man hopes to ban booting one key at a time

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Legality in question as efforts to ban the boot ongoing

Christian Verrette thinks he may have found the key to end car booting, a practice so reviled that it’s given rise to masked women who come to the aid -- for a fee -- of frustrated people whose cars have been booted.

Verrette, who has gotten the boot many times, kept hearing similar stories from friends and family. So he decided to make keys that will unlock the boots so that bootees don’t have to call the booting company and pay their $75 fee. He charges $50 for one key and $150 for four.

Verrette, who owns Atlanta Ink, a tattoo and piercing business, said the boot keys are more a passion project than business endeavor.

“The thing that I’m enjoying is that I do like the public awareness about it,” he said. “That’s why I started this, I wanted to ban the boot. I don’t care about this business because (Atlanta Ink) is my business.”

Verrette has keys to unlock boots from four of the major companies that operate in the Atlanta area. About 99% of all boots in metro Atlanta and Decatur are compatible with the keys.

At first, he relied on a local locksmith to make the keys. But with a recent increase in orders, Verrette started making the keys himself at home.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

It takes about 30 seconds to make a key, he said, but each key is made to order. He asks customers to allow two to three weeks for production before the key is shipped.

The increase in popularity for the keys could be tied to a pair of women, known as the Boot Girls, who use Verrette’s keys to remove boots around Atlanta for $50 each.

The Boot Girls, Boot Shiesty and Boot Baby, started their business after one of their vehicles had been booted.

“Boot Shiesty’s car had gotten booted, so we just called someone to come take it off and he offered us a (boot) key,” Boot Baby said. They keep their identify hidden, wearing ski masks while taking off a boot.

They estimate they are removing about 40 to 50 boots a day, NPR reported.

It is unclear how many boots are being placed around Atlanta daily, but city ordinances require each booting company and operator to get a permit from Atlanta Police’s License and Permits unit.

According to APD, the unit has issued 161 vehicle immobilization operator permits and 13 vehicle immobilization company permits in the last year and 119 operator and 11 company permits in the past six months. The permits must be renewed annually with an annual permit fee of $50.

Booting companies can’t charge more than $75 per day for the removal of the boot, according to city ordinance.

A key legal point

The increased popularity of the keys, with sales exceeding $50,000, has raised questions about the legality of it all. Matt Wetherington, an Atlanta attorney who handles cases against booting companies, praised the work Verrette is doing but warned people about dangers of removing boots themselves.

“At the end of the day, as an attorney, what they are doing is both legally and physically dangerous. What they are doing can result in not just themselves but their customers being criminally charged with a variety of crimes, including trespass,” Wetherington said.

According to the Atlanta Police Department, owning a boot key is not illegal but using one to modify, tamper or disengage a booting device may result in charges such as criminal trespass, theft of services, theft by taking or second-degree property damage. Attempts to reach booting companies by an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter were unsuccessful.

Wetherington said even if the charges would never be prosecuted, the hassle involved would be more than the $75 it costs to remove the boot. Attorney Daniel Nagel, who represents Verrette and the Boot Girls, said there is nothing in the statue that would make removing a booting device illegal, unless it is damaged or stolen.

“As long as the boot is completely functional after it’s removed, they are committing no crime,” Nagel said.

Besides, the city of Atlanta could solve the problem tomorrow, Wetherington said, by simply banning it.

“Atlanta has made a conscious and purposeful choice to let booting be used against its citizens,” he said.

His firm can’t handle the demand from people who have been booted and want to sue, including a man who was shot in the leg after confronting a man who had booted his car outside a Buckhead bar in 2017. His firm is currently pursing several lawsuits where booting operators have assaulted or threatened people over parking enforcement.

A recent video showed a booting company employee confronting the Boot Girls while they were removing a boot. The women said they try to go out with protection and are learning ways of staying safe when removing boots.

“We learned through our experiences how to move smarter,” Boot Baby said.

Verrette said he knows he is probably making some enemies by making and selling the keys but doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

“Anytime you are doing something right, something just, something moral, you are going to make enemies,” he said.

Lawmakers and the boot

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Georgia law already prohibits booting but some local governments - Atlanta, Decatur, DeKalb County, Smyrna - allow booting on private property by private companies.

During the last legislative session, State Senator Josh McLaurin, D-Atlanta, introduced a bill to ban booting outright. The bill, which had bipartisan support, was out of committee but the clock ran out, McLaurin said.

“I think that was a wake-up call, not just for the industry but for anybody who might profit from this practice,” McLaurin said.

Councilmember Amir Farokhi tried to ban booting back in 2018 but the city ended up passing a watered down version of the bill which mostly focused on requirements for signage in private parking lots.

“What we are seeing from these individuals who are removing boots from cars is continuous frustration that booting is often times predatory in the city and unfair,” he said.

McLaurin said he plans to reintroduce his bill next session.

“At this point, it has just become an out-of-control predatory industry. I personally would be in favor to ban it,” he said.