Atlanta moves toward modest reform of car booting industry

A proposed city of Atlanta ordinance introduced in February would have banned the booting of vehicles on private property and codified the practice as “a blight on the City.”

Nine months later, those strong words had been stripped from the legislation. And the version of the bill approved by the City Council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee on Tuesday will likely come as a disappointment to anyone wanting to put vehicle immobilizers on the scrap heap.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of car booting

The committee moved along an ordinance that increased background check requirements for booting operators, created clearer signage for when cars might be booted or towed, and allowed for business owners to apply for permits to boot vehicles themselves. Currently, the law requires a business to hire a separate company that’s licensed by the city to tow or boot vehicles.

Now the proposal that passed Tuesday will likely go to the full council on Monday. But testimony before the committee highlighted the significant amount of outrage and financial interest surrounding the issue.

Matthew Wetherington, a lawyer who is trying to overturn ordinances that allow booting vehicles in Atlanta and make it illegal statewide, called the ordinance “window dressing.”

Nevertheless, Wetherington called Amir Farokhi, the council member pushing for the changes, courageous for being willing to take on the issue despite powerful efforts from booting lobbyists to preserve the status quo.

“He’s doing the best he can,” Wetherington said.

Wetherington appeared before the committee with a new client: 27-year-old Matt Stevens, who was shot in the thigh last Thursday after confronting a man who he said had booted his car outside of a Buckhead bar on the 3000 block of Roswell Road.

“This is about a culture of violence that is inflicted on our community needlessly,” Wetherington told the committee. “We are talking about using guns to enforce $2, $3, $4 parking spots. We can do better as a city.”

Stevens told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution that his car was the only one in the lot and that he had only stayed in the spot for about 10 minutes longer than he should have. In frustration, he said he threw the money to get the boot removed on the ground.

After a few more words were exchanged, Stevens said the booting operate pulled out his gun. Stevens responded by putting up his hands, saying: “Chill! Chill!”

Then his ears rang and blood dripped out of his leg.

The booting company employee removed the Boots from Steven’s car so that a friend could drive him to the hospital.

Chip Schmeelk, a representative of Empire Parking Services, which is responsible for parking enforcement on the Buckhead lot, told committee members on Tuesday that vehicle immobilization is effective and necessary in dense urban areas. His industry employs more than 250 people locally, putting millions of dollars into the city’s economy every year, he said.

He said that his company was cooperating with law enforcement and conducting its own investigation into the incident.

Schmeelk also acknowledged that it wasn’t the only time an Empire Parking Service employee had been accused of illegally brandishing a gun. Last year, in that same lot, another Empire employee pointed a pistol at a man who was filming him. When the employee threatened to shoot the man, the man dared him to and threatened a lawsuit.

“What I would like for you all to take away from that incident is that we cooperated with law enforcement,” Schmeelk said. “The employee in question was terminated.”

According to Fulton County court records, the employee pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, pointing a gun at a person.

“In other words, the system worked,” Schmeelk said.

The story so far

  • February 2018 — A bill banning booting of automobiles from private property is introduced by Council Member Amir Farokhi.
  • June 2018 — Legislation has been substantially changed. Now the legislation reduces the response time to remove boots; requires employees to wear company uniforms and use self-release boots. It would also create standard signage to be posted on private property where the devices are used.
  • November 2018 — The Atlanta City Council's Public Safety and Legal Administration approves a re-worked ordinance.