Suit: Booting cars in Georgia isn’t legal

Signs in the Newnan Crossing shopping center in Newnan, Ga., warn owners of “unauthorized vehicles” they are subject to booting. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

Signs in the Newnan Crossing shopping center in Newnan, Ga., warn owners of “unauthorized vehicles” they are subject to booting. CHRIS JOYNER / CJOYNER@AJC.COM

It’s the worst.

You park in a big retail lot somewhere in metro Atlanta, do your chores, eat lunch, stop at the drug store and return to find a bright yellow boot on your car placed there by some unknown parking lot ranger who saw you (or thought he saw you) wander off property.

To get it off, you have to pay a fine on the spot that could be $75 or maybe 10 times that amount.

What you may not know is that booting isn’t allowed in Georgia. At least that’s the argument being made by a team of Atlanta lawyers launching a series of suits against booting companies and the companies that hire them.

These lawyers say booting isn’t allowed anywhere unless a local ordinance regulates it into existence. And they are not even 100 percent convinced of that.

“That’s the whole point. Georgia has a towing ordinance,” explained Matt Wetherington, one such attorney who is pretty passionate about the topic.

But the ordinance says nothing about booting car, and Wetherington said that silence says a lot.

If you go to the state code, there's a law dealing with the "removal" of cars on private property. That law allows for property owners to tow improperly parked cars and includes a lot of detail about who can tow the cars and where they can be towed. There are also detailed regulations on how much it costs to get your car back. Not a word about booting.

Some cities have specific ordinances allowing booting — Atlanta and Decatur are two big ones — but absent such a special provision nobody should be getting the boot. Cobb County went another step and has an ordinance specifically prohibiting booting as "not in the best interests of the county."

A $500 payout in Newnan

The city of Newnan does not have a booting ordinance, but that didn’t stop James Burke, a truck driver from Pennsylvania who was passing through, from getting booted.

Burke said he delivered his trailer to his customer early one morning last month and drove his cab to Newnan Crossing, a massive retail complex with an expansive parking lot, to restock at Walmart for the remainder of his journey.

When he returned, he found a boot on his rig and an attendant from Maximum Booting Company, a Fairburn-based outfit that contracts with local retailers. Burke said he was “held at ransom” by the man.

“He wanted $500 to release the truck. I was accused of trespassing on Walmart property,” he said. “I showed him my receipt — that I was shopping.”

He showed me the receipt too, which showed about $100 spent in the discount store. But the man from Maximum Booting showed him a sign saying tractor trailers weren’t allowed.

Burke pointed out that he didn’t have a trailer and was just driving his cab. No dice. He said he needed to call his office. That’s fine, the employee allegedly told him, but the fee increased by $100 every hour.

“I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’” he said. “This is a criminal act in itself. … I was thinking was this a real guy? A real business? Is this a scam?”

Booters aid businesses, company says

It’s not a scam and it’s not against the law, said Kenneth McElwaney, owner of Maximum Booting.

“If it was (illegal) there wouldn’t be any booting companies in the state of Georgia,” he said.

McElwaney said he is just helping private property owners control a valuable resource they want reserved for customers and not taken up by tractor trailers. That’s their right, he said.

“This is not public property,” he said. “You don’t own this property.”

As I said, the law doesn’t say anything about booting. Two state lawmakers from suburban Atlanta tried to get that changed in 2011 with a bill specifically allowing booting statewide. They never got the wheels turning on that piece of unpopular legislation and neither are in office today (they retired, they didn’t get the boot).

McElwaney sees that as proof of his case.

“Until there is an actual law that says you can’t do that in the state of Georgia, then there is no law,” he said.

Boot costs man $725

Wetherington would agree with the last part. It’s lawless out there, he said.

In Atlanta and Decatur, where booting is controlled by detailed ordinances, booting rates are capped at $75. But where no ordinances exist, it’s the wild west, he said.

“You can set whatever fee you want,” he said. “The police are doing nothing about this.”

Wetherington and several other lawyers are busy gathering clients for what they hope will be a class action lawsuit against the booting companies and their bosses.

Last month, Glenn Millsaps Jr. returned to his car in a shopping center parking lot on South Hairston Road in DeKalb County to find it had been booted. To get his car back, Millsaps had to pay $725 to a private company.

Millsaps filed suit against the company, the shopping center and unnamed retailers over the fee and his lawyers are promoting the lawsuit as a possible class action.

They say serious laws are being broken, including theft, negligence and even false imprisonment and racketeering.

In Newnan, Police Chief Buster Meadows said the city’s legal team has advised his department to stay out of it when called to mediate a booting dispute.

“We tell them to seek a civil remedy on it. We don’t see where a crime is being committed,” he said. “Our legal representative for the city says it is in-place towing. We don’t regulate it.”

‘Money-making scheme’

In-place towing?

There are obvious limits to the if-it’s-not-illegal-it-must-be-legal argument.

First of all, we’re not talking about police, backed by the power of the state, booting your car. No, this is just some dude in a Honda putting an anchor on your tire and demanding payment. Who gave him that right?

If someone parked their car in my driveway, I couldn’t claim it as my own. That would be theft, right? I couldn’t set it on fire. That can’t be legal.

But could I remove a tire and demand the offending party pay me $1,000 to get it back? Could I buy a boot online, clamp it on there myself and demand payment?

Unless the Legislature passes a law expressly allowing booting or clarifying its apparent intent that towing is the only legal means of removing improperly parked cars, it will be up to the courts to settle it.

What happened to Burke, the Pennsylvania truck driver stuck in Newnan? He had to call his home office and ask them to pay the $500 so he could get back on the road. He was glad to see Newnan in his rear-view mirror.

“It’s just a money-making scheme,” he said.