AJC readers speak: Booting cars in Georgia needs legislative solution

Sarah Saltzman drove to the Avalon shopping center in Alpharetta a few weeks ago to return a pair of shoes in one of the development’s many shops.

She found a relatively close parking space, walked to the store and returned in short order to find a big, yellow boot on her tire and a note on her windshield with a number to call to have it removed.

Saltzman took out her phone, but before she could dial, a man popped out with a credit-card reader and a demand for $75.

“It was sorta creepy. I didn’t even know he was there. He had to be watching me walk out of the parking lot to see where I was going,” she said.

Then Saltzman looked around and noticed cars all over the parking lot with similar boots on them — each one with a $75 price tag.

It’s that kind of ambush that makes booting so unpopular. Well, that and the feeling that you are being held hostage until you fork over your credit card.

Last week I wrote about a group of lawyers who are challenging the legality of booting in Georgia and that column prompted some of you to reach out with your own stories and frustrations. The takeaway? Booting is despised — and not a workable solution for parking problems.

It turns out that on the retail parking battlefield, the lot where Saltzman left her car is claimed by a Whole Foods grocery store. The Emory University sophomore failed to see the smallish signs on the perimeter of the lot declaring that.

I contacted the grocery store to see why they have resorted to booting people in their lot. The manager said he couldn’t talk to me and referred me to a regional spokesperson who didn’t get back with me.

Booting doesn’t free up space

There is a state law allowing private property owners to manage their parking by having improperly parked cars towed. Towing is a regulated industry in Georgia — for good reason.

“The biggest reason we are regulated is because there were some unscrupulous operators who were (price) gouging,” said Philip Howard, board president of the Towing and Recovery Association of Georgia and owner of a towing company in Mableton.

Howard said regulation reigned in the bad actors by creating the hoops property owners and towing companies have to jump through before they haul your car away.

To tow away improperly parked cars, private property owners need to have signs visible to all motorists with specific information and instructions. Towing companies have to have state permits and abide by regulations covering everything from personnel and record-keeping to how much companies can charge people for towing their cars.

In cities that don’t have specific booting ordinances, like Alpharetta, booting companies just have to have the metal boots and permission from the lot owner. They can boot as many cars as they like and charge whatever they think is fair.

“The towing association would not be opposed to booting falling under some regulations,” Howard said.

Speaking personally, Howard said he doesn’t think booting solves any problems for property owners. It doesn’t free up spaces for customers, “which is what the owner wants.”

“It’s simply a revenue generator,” he said.

No uniform rules

So why isn’t it regulated?

Booting isn’t rare in metro Atlanta. It is specifically allowed by ordinance in Atlanta, Decatur and a few other places, with local regulations and cost caps. But it’s a patchwork solution.

Marietta allows it, but if you boot a car in Cobb County you could be charged with a misdemeanor. Cherokee County doesn’t allow booting and violators face a $1,000 fine and two months in jail.

How can something be a legitimate business in one place and a criminal act just a few miles away? This seems like a job for state lawmakers, right?

I reached out to a handful of legislators who might handle such a bill. I’m still waiting on them to call back. I did talk to Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who said he would expect members of the metro Atlanta delegation to author that kind of legislation. But his experience suggests lawmakers aren’t interested in getting into local parking feuds.

Powell, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee and sits on the Motor Vehicles Committee, waded into the topic when he got a parking ticket from the city of Atlanta. Powell felt the process was unjust and unpleasant.

“I said something to some of these folks back then I’d be more than glad to work with anybody,” he said. “I never got anybody.”

Damaged car, but no recourse

Last week, Stephanie Fuller was booted in the same grocery store parking lot as Saltzman. She had gone to the Avalon to meet an associate for lunch and planned to pick up a few things at Whole Foods after dining. She parked in the back of the parking lot, halfway between the restaurant and the store, but returned to find her car had been booted.

“It just really shocked me that you would boot a customer’s tire,” she said. “That was one of my favorite stores until this happened.”

She went into the grocery store and appealed to management, who agreed to have the boot released once she finished shopping. (Saltzman had asked the same thing, but the booting company representative said it wouldn’t matter — that’s one of the vagaries of dealing with an unregulated industry, I guess.)

When Fuller returned to her car the boot was gone but her wheel was dented and the tire was scored. Fuller is meticulous about her vehicle — a 2014 Corvette convertible.

“I personally hand-washed it last time,” she said. “I know any marks that are on that car.”

Fuller said she complained to Whole Foods, who told her that her claim was with the booting company. The booting company denied any wrongdoing, she said.

She said lawmakers should do something to reign in the industry. There are other ways to handle parking disputes, she said.

“I would much have preferred that they wrote a ticket and have me pay a fine rather than damaging my car,” she said.

A group of Atlanta attorneys have been collecting clients to bring a class action lawsuit against the booting companies with claims that they are engaged in an illegal enterprise of theft, false imprisonment and other crimes. Booting companies say the practice is legal, otherwise someone would stop them. Police are loath to get involved.

It’s possible the courts could weigh in and declare the process illegal, but what’s really needed is action at the Capitol.

Lawmakers should either clarify that booting isn’t allowed or specifically allow it.

Then let the executive branch write some rules that give drivers the sense they aren’t being robbed.

As AJC Watchdog, I’ll be writing about public officials, good governance and the way your tax dollars are spent. Help me out. What needs exposing in your community? Contact me at cjoyner@ajc.com.

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