DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond (center) speaks to Police Chief James Conroy (right) before casting the deciding vote on new booting regulations during a meeting on Dec. 4, 2018. La’Keitha Carlos, Thurmond’s chief of staff, looks on. TIA MITCHELL/TIA.MITCHELL@AJC.COM

DeKalb County to regulate car booting industry, curb excessive fees

The DeKalb County Commission on Tuesday moved to limit the power of car booting companies and curb fees they can charge drivers to remove boots from their vehicles.

A sharply divided commission adopted the county’s first regulation of this controversial industry that has faced allegations of predatory practices and excessive fees across the metro area. The new law sets a maximum fee of $85 for the removal of boots installed on cars and most other vehicles. Drivers of semi-trucks can be charged up to $150 to have devices removed.

The new fee structures go into effect immediately and will apply to unincorporated parts of the county.

VIDEO: More on car booting

Channel 2 consumer investigator Jim Strickland has tracked a car that vanished after being booted at a Buckhead condo.

Because DeKalb didn’t have a law that regulated the niche industry, booting companies set their own fees when cars were deemed to have parked inappropriately on private property, such as retail parking lots. Some semi-truck drivers reported being forced to pay $600 or more after immobilization devices were put on their rigs, sometimes after the drivers had stepped away for only a few minutes.

“There’s been a growing concern because of illegal and inappropriate behavior of individuals associated with some booting enterprises in DeKalb County,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said. “And something had to be done to address that.”

Thurmond stepped in Tuesday to break a 3-3 tie on the commission as he cast the deciding vote in support of the new law. The three dissenting votes wanted to ban the practice of booting vehicles and thus they opposed a measure they said didn’t go far enough to reign in the industry.

It was Thurmond’s first time breaking a tie among commissioners after nearly two years in office. He said afterward that forced to decide between allowing booting to continue unregulated in unincorporated DeKalb or passing a law setting limits on the practice, he chose the latter.

When a first draft of regulations was released over the summer, several commissioners said they would prefer to ban the practice of booting as other Metro Atlanta municipalities have done. But the booting industry and some business groups lobbied for regulation instead.

Under the new law, boots must be removed within one hour after payment is received. A device cannot be installed on a vehicle until after it has been parked improperly for at least 20 minutes, and photo proof is required.

Companies will be required to apply for county permits to operating booting services, and every employee who installs the devices must be equipped with a body camera. The new law also requires signage at lots where booting will occur.

Thurmond’s vote was needed to break a 3-3 tie because Commissioner Gregory Adams was absent from the seven-member body.

Mereda Davis Johnson, Jeff Rader and Steve Bradshaw were in support of the new rules. Johnson is chairwoman of the committee where the proposal was vetted, and she said the final proposal is the result of input from law enforcement, industry representatives and the business community.

“We came up with a compromise to regulate booting in this county,” she said. Later she added, “I think we took all of the precautions.”

The three commissioners who voted “no” — Larry Johnson, Nancy Jester and Kathie Gannon — each said they preferred a booting ban. Clayton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties do not allow booting on private property in unincorporated areas.

A booting ban was proposed in the city of Atlanta, but City Council members are moving forward with reforms to an existing law allowing the practice instead.

The DeKalb commissioners who opposed the new law said they disliked that the booting ordinance because it created new responsibilities for the DeKalb County Police Department, which they said is already stretched thin. And they raised questions about safety, citing a recent incident in Atlanta where a man who discovered his car had been immobilized was shot by a booting company employee.

Gannon initially proposed the ordinance to regulate booting, but ultimately voted against it.

“I have totally changed my mind, and I’m voting no on this ordinance,” she said on Tuesday. “Booting is simply predatory.”

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