OPINION: Rationality often immobilized in car booting debate

Snellville recently approved an ordinance amendment requiring clear signage on any property that employs the practice of booting vehicles. (Courtesy Wikimedia)
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Snellville recently approved an ordinance amendment requiring clear signage on any property that employs the practice of booting vehicles. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Let me be clear: Hardly anyone likes those in the vehicle booting racket — except maybe their moms.

There are few things that trigger rage, frustration and regret faster than returning to your car after a meal or quick dash to the store and finding a yellow metal boot clamped to your wheel.

So, last week, when the Georgia Supreme Court ruled against the booting industry, there was collective Schadenfreude against those sneaky vehicle-immobilizing varmints. You know the type, the guys who lurk on the periphery of a parking lot, watch you wander off the premises and then quickly slap a metal contraption on your tire to hold your ride for ransom.

The court made it illegal — for now — for booters to operate in jurisdictions where there are no laws regulating the activity. Booting can continue in places where ordinances are in place.

The case started in 2018 when a tractor-trailer got booted after he parked in a shopping center in DeKalb County and the driver had to pay $650 to have the boot removed. The shopping center’s argument was something like this: Common law allows property owners and their hired Hessians to commandeer vehicles wrongfully parked on their land.

The contention was something called the “distress damage feasant,” an ancient legal premise that allowed property owners to confiscate a neighbor’s cattle if the beasts meandered onto and then trampled their land. Then landowner could then hold the livestock until the owner paid for the damage the animals caused.

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Midtown Promenade on Monroe Dr. near Piedmont park threatens booting if you are not shopping there. Atlanta's City Council is set to consider an ordinance that would strengthen the cityÍs regulation of the vehicle booting industry.

Credit: Bob Andres

Midtown Promenade on Monroe Dr. near Piedmont park threatens booting if you are not shopping there. Atlanta's City Council is set to consider an ordinance that would strengthen the cityÍs regulation of the vehicle booting industry.
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Midtown Promenade on Monroe Dr. near Piedmont park threatens booting if you are not shopping there. Atlanta's City Council is set to consider an ordinance that would strengthen the cityÍs regulation of the vehicle booting industry.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Here’s the updated version: “If thou parketh on my acreage and sneak off to the expresso shoppe, I shall slappeth some iron on the tyre of thy Subaru.”

It was a unique argument, so novel that the esteemed Supreme Court Chief Justice David Nahmias employed the legal term “nutso” to describe it when it was trotted out before him in August.

Matt Wetherington, the victorious attorney who has made a niche business suing booting companies and their clients, told me, “We’re not anti-booting; we’re anti people making up their own rules. You can’t charge $1,000 and give people no voice. You can’t have a one-sided interaction where one party sets all the rules.”

He added, “If there are no rules, the booting companies have taken the position that ‘There are no rules and we can do what we want.’ We’ve become used to it in Atlanta.”

On the other side of this debate is Michael Jacob, who founded Advanced Booting Services in 1998 and soon put a boot on a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo. He was not a party to the recent suit but has been sued by Wetherington.

I noted that Advanced Booting got a one-star rating — out of five — from 143 “customer” reviews on Google. (Such venom!) He laughed, saying, “Who’s going to give us a rave review? ‘We got booted. It was awesome!’ "

Jacob debated the notion that booters are universally reviled. “Our clients love us,” he said. That is, store and property owners.

Parking is often at a premium and store owners who own or rent parking spaces often fall victim to non-customers who want a free space at someone else’s expense.

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Booting is outlawed in some Georgia counties and governed by ordinance in cities like Atlanta. In other areas, booting companies make the rules. A sign in the Newnan Crossing shopping center in Newnan, Ga., warns owners of “unauthorized vehicles” they are subject to booting. (AJC file photo)

Booting is outlawed in some Georgia counties and governed by ordinance in cities like Atlanta. In other areas, booting companies make the rules. A sign in the Newnan Crossing shopping center in Newnan, Ga., warns owners of “unauthorized vehicles” they are subject to booting. (AJC file photo)
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Booting is outlawed in some Georgia counties and governed by ordinance in cities like Atlanta. In other areas, booting companies make the rules. A sign in the Newnan Crossing shopping center in Newnan, Ga., warns owners of “unauthorized vehicles” they are subject to booting. (AJC file photo)

Wetherington and some Supreme Court justices said the idea of booting a wrongfully parked vehicle and keeping it on site is an odd way to free up parking spots. “Where in the world can you say a cure for trespass is to continue the trespass?” Justice Nahmias asked in August.

Jacob countered, said, “When you tow a car from a spot, there’s nothing there. But when someone pulls into a parking lot and sees a couple cars booted, you’ll either leave or pay attention to the signs. It’s a visual deterrent.”

Places like Atlanta, Decatur and Dekalb County (DeKalb did so after the case in point) have in recent years drawn up ordinances after elected officials got worn out by angry voters and booting abuses grew.

The state legislature has tried at least twice to create a law regulating booting. Its efforts were, ahem, immobilized. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, sponsored a bill in 2018. “But it got turned around,” he said. “It turned into a firestorm. It was like I was trying to help the booters rather than create a standard.”

State Rep. Matt Dollar, R-Marietta, is sponsoring a bill in the next session that has some logical, no-brainer proposals: Booting companies must have a permit, hire workers who are not recent criminals, have their employees readily identifiable, have live human beings answering the phone and erect clear and adequate signage in parking lots.

The bill has one ridiculous caveat. A booting can occur only after a towing company is contacted and the driver surveys the situation and writes a note saying he can’t move the vehicle.

You know how often this will happen? NEVER.

A bill like this should be called the Towing Company Enabling Act. As I’ve often said in the past week, there’s one thing worse that getting booted — getting towed.

It would seem to be not hard for the Legislature to work out a solution. So far, though, common sense has been given the boot.

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