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Attorney who represented client in booting case says Decatur has opportunity to improve its ordinance

Crime and public safety Decatur Trending

Attorney who represented client in booting case says Decatur has opportunity to improve its ordinance

A boot on a vehicle. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

Decatur, GA — The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that common law rights asserted by a property owner who booted a man’s vehicle don’t actually exist.

The Supreme Court released its ruling on Dec. 14.

The case occurred in DeKalb County at the Wesley Chapel Crossing shopping center in Greater Decatur. And while the case will have no bearing directly on Decatur, since the city does have an ordinance on booting, the attorney representing the plaintiff in that case tells Decaturish that the ruling will affect litigation against booting companies and property owners in Decatur.

Attorney Matt Wetherington said he has at least three or four lawsuits pending against booting companies and property owners related to cases in the city of Decatur.

“We’ve filed several class actions against booting companies that operate in Decatur alleging that they do not comply with the plain language of Decatur’s ordinance,” Wetherington said. “Those booting companies have acknowledged that they violate the ordinance, but nonetheless claim they had a common law right to boot regardless of the ordinance itself. What this opinion stands for is the principle is you do have to comply with the ordinance, and you can’t just make up authority out of thin air. Those cases against booting companies in Decatur will proceed forward as we continue to try and get compensation for individuals who have been unlawfully booted in Decatur.”

Wetherington’s client, Forrest Allen, in 2018 sued the owner and operator of RCC Wesley Chapel Crossing, LLC and alleged negligence, premises liability, false imprisonment, conversion and a violation of the Georgia Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act. Allen parked in the shopping center on Feb. 5, 2018 and someone there slapped a boot on it and told him he was required to pay $650 to get the boot removed. Allen moved to certify the action on behalf of a proposed class, saying at least 250 people had the same thing happen to them.

Eventually, the defendants asked the Supreme Court to determine that common law – law derived from judicial rulings instead of laws – gave them the right to boot vehicles on their property. They also claimed that common law allowed them to impound another person’s property when it’s on their land. The state Supreme Court disagreed.

“Defendants have cited no authority from Georgia or any other jurisdiction where a court applied the distress damage feasant doctrine to anything other than livestock or where the court held that a landowner has a common-law right to impound and hold a chattel, such as an  automobile, whose owner is easily discoverable,” Justice Shawn Ellen LaGrua wrote. “Indeed, there appears to be no legal authority recognizing a common-law right to immobilize unauthorized vehicles located on private property and hold them against the owner’s will until payment is received.”

Wetherington said Decatur should look at the ruling and consider changes to its existing ordinance that would improve it. Aggressive booting on private lots has been a common complaint in the past.

Aggressive booting at free lots that serve businesses in downtown Decatur has previously deterred people who would use them to park and walk to other businesses in downtown Decatur. The booting became so aggressive that the City Commission in 2016 had to step in and pass new regulations to curtail some of the more predatory parking enforcement practices.

Even with the stricter rules in place, booting companies didn’t always follow them, Wetherington said. He said the most common occurrence is lot owners failing to identify which businesses they serve, which is required by the ordinance.

“We’ve tried to work with Decatur to improve their ordinance to help the companies who want to comply help people who are unlawfully booted get resolution, and there’s still work to be done in that area,” he said. “Decatur’s ordinance can be improved.”

For example, the city could require booting companies to remove the boots within a certain amount of time or face penalties. The city should also consider providing a dispute resolution process involving a neutral third party to help people who feel they’ve been unlawfully booted.

“This is a pseudo public space. This is a community trying to work together and the community needs to provide ways for the community to resolve simple disputes like parking without having to file a class action,” Wetherington said.

Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett and City Manager Andrea Arnold both said they were interested to read the ruling and ask the city attorney about any improvements the city could make to its current ordinance.

Both noted that during the pandemic, booting hasn’t been a pressing concern as most businesses struggled to attract customers to their lots and complaints dwindled.

“It’s certainly worth taking a look at,” Mayor Garrett said.

Arnold said there’s no formal, advertised way for people to complain that a property owner or booting company has violated the city’s current ordinance.

“There’s not a separate section for violation of that ordinance,” she said.

She agreed that changes to the ordinance are worth looking into. Arnold said she’d read the Supreme Court ruling and talk to the city attorney.

“I’ll put it on my list for 2022,” she said.

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