Several months ago, I wrote about a legal effort to end booting as a parking enforcement practice in Georgia.
Since then I’ve gotten a regular stream of complaints from metro area drivers who are enraged at booting companies and the businesses that hire them. I told many of them I would keep an eye out to see if state lawmakers addressed the issue.
They have, but not as I expected. House Bill 774 proposes to make booting, which currently is controlled by local ordinances, legal all across the state. Not only that, but it would increase the customary fee to get the dang thing off your car from $75 to $85.
The bill is backed by something called the Georgia Vehicle Immobilization Coalition, which has hired a well-connected lobbying firm to push it on their behalf. I’ve never heard of this coalition, but the Atlanta mailing address traces back to Advance Booting Services, one of the larger operators in the metro area and owner of a perfect one-star rating on Yelp.com by consumers of their services.
“Extortion. Pure extortion,” one reviewer raved.
“I was shocked and affronted, my children were terrified,” another gushed, describing his encounter with a booting attendant.
But in a hearing before the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee last week, Advance co-owner Jeff Phillips told lawmakers the coalition wants statewide regulation to rein in bad actors.
“Our goal was continuity, kind of like the towing industry has,” he said. “We want consistency across the state. We want regulation for everybody.”
Maybe I’ve been around the Capitol too long, but my eyebrows raise any time an industry comes begging state legislators to regulate them.
Rep.Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, had a similar reaction and responded to Phillip’s testimony with a story of his own. Holcomb said he was shopping in a strip mall in downtown Decatur and crossed the street to visit another shop. When he returned, his car had a yellow boot on it and an attendant was demanding $75 to remove it.
“The guy said, ‘I saw you walking across the street.’ I said, ‘Sure, but I had already done commerce within the shopping center,’” he said.
Phillips offered a defense: “Their thinking is once you are done shopping and have left the property you are no longer a customer there. And in a lot of cases parking is a premium and they have to preserve the parking for new customers.”
There’s a real argument to be made there. Retailers in crowded urban environments want parking spots available for customers (but not former customers, apparently). Protecting those spaces is a legitimate issue.
‘An acceptable business practice’
The bill is sponsored by Public Safety Committee Chairman Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, who said he sees the bill as a “consumer protection” bill, reining in the most abusive practices of the industry. Still, he calls booting “distasteful” and realizes people don’t like it.
People seem to think booting is predatory just because it usually involves an attendant lying in wait for someone to stray from the pack and then clamping down and immobilizing them.
“I don’t blame people for not liking it,” Powell said. “But it’s an acceptable business practice.”
True, but only if lawmakers make it so. Some states and many local governments — including Cobb and Gwinnett counties — have declared booting illegal.
Some jurisdictions, such as Atlanta, Marietta and Decatur, govern it by ordinance.
What’s less clear is whether the practice is legal in cities like Alpharetta or Newnan where it’s not banned but not allowed by ordinance either.
While other parking enforcement tools, like towing, are specifically allowed in state law, booting isn’t mentioned at all.
Horror stories are legion
Still, even in places where booting is permitted consumers have problems with the way it is practiced.
Christine Taylor, the University of Alabama’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, emailed me last fall about her terrible experience dining in a Midtown restaurant during a visit to our fair city. During her meal, Taylor said she was approached by a rough-looking man who asked her if she drove to the restaurant.
She had, but she was in town alone and didn’t know the guy or what he wanted, so she protectively lied. He never identified himself, she said.
When she came out of the restaurant, there was a boot on her car. Taylor said she had to make several uncomfortable phone calls, including to the police, to get the boot removed. The booting company threatened to have her car towed, hung up on her and later removed the boot but demanded she leave the property before police arrived.
“Is Atlanta better than this? I don’t know,” she asked. “When I finally spoke to an officer they said there was nothing they could do because it was a business performance issue.”
New Mexico bans booting entirely
So why is this bill coming up now? It could be because some Atlanta attorneys have been gathering clients for class action lawsuitsthat claim booting is illegal across the state.
Matt Wetherington, one of the attorneys suing the booters, said the proposed bill is a de facto admission by the booting companies that they have been violating the law.
“They are not trying to retroactively say that it was legal all along,” he said. “They know it was illegal all along.”
Wetherington said making booting legal across the state won’t solve the problem with the practice. Consumers will continue to feel confused, cheated and trapped. They will continue to call police and police will continue to not want to get involved, he said.
“Obviously, the real solution is to ban booting statewide,” he said. Some states, like New Mexico, have done just that.
It’s tough to gauge the appetite for this legislation. Lawmakers are preparing to run for re-election and this doesn’t have a feel-good ring to it.
The bill had another in a series of hearings Wednesday and enthusiasm for it was lacking.
“This legislation is for the booters, not the consumers,” Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah, said. “I just don’t like the whole process. I’d just rather you give me a ticket or find another avenue to collect the fine.”
Powell sent it back for more work with the prospect of a committee vote sometime next week.
“This thing is way more difficult than anybody realized,” he said.
Given his experience, Holcomb said he’d prefer to ban booting rather than regulate it, but he’s not sure the votes are there to explicitly prohibit it. It’s strange to see a Republican pushing creation of new industry regulation and a Democrat opposing it, but that’s politics.
If the lobbyists have their way, booting will be more common, a little more expensive and perhaps better regulated. If you are OK with that, the bill likely will make its way into law.
If not, it’s time to call your legislator.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.