Motorist's nightmare. (credit Wikipedia creative commons)

By Tom Gogola, The Lens staff writer |

Feel like the city’s got a boot on your neck? How about on your tire?

There’s a reason why. In the past year, New Orleans parking officials have become much more aggressive in the use of devices that immobilize cars with outstanding parking tickets.

“[W]e used to boot vehicles if they had more than three violations,” said city Department of Public Works parking administrator Zepporiah Edmonds, in testimony Wednesday afternoon before the City Council’s Budget-Audit Board of Review.

In 2009, the city revised the booting statute to read, “Any unoccupied vehicle found on street or highway against which there is a recorded and unpaid delinquent parking citation issued under the authority of this article shall be immediately immobilized or towed and impounded, or both, by any police officer or other person duly authorized.”

“Prior to this revision, the code stated vehicles in this category could only be booted for having three or more unpaid parking citations,” mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni said via email.

The change kicked in as the City has ramped up enforcement and collections in the fourth quarter of 2011, Berni added.

Autos are boot-eligible, he said, if the owner “fails to timely respond to a second notice” or “hasn’t paid a ticket after 120 days.”

The result, Edmonds said, has been a sharp increase in the number of booted vehicles over the past year, with an attendant sharp increase in city revenues.

“Year to date our booting is actually 134 percent higher than it was in 2011,” Edmonds said. “This is just based upon we lowered the threshold for booting.”

“This is good news,” said Councilwoman Stacy Head.

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Stephen Rue offered a warning, however. “When they change policies like that, it may make the city susceptible to a class-action lawsuit,” he said.

He described the current boot blitz as “a huge problem in New Orleans.”

Many drivers simply don’t know whether they have outstanding tickets, especially if they are being booted for a single ticket issued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Rue said. Those are the people who could form a class of plaintiffs and sue the city, he added, while denying that he plans to file such a lawsuit.

“The most reasonable thing to do,” said Rue, “is ensure that [the city] has sent notices to the alleged violators, with a letter asking for any change of addresses, so that the violator knows what they owe. “

Parking tickets “can be taken off a vehicle,” said Rue, or otherwise never make it into the hands of the alleged offender. And given the chaos in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, “I’m sure there are hundreds of people, and probably more like thousands, literally not knowing that they have a violation,” he said.

Comes the boot, and most motorists just pay up because the cost of hiring an attorney is prohibitive, Rue said. Edmonds reported that besides the dramatic increase in bootings, the city is projecting a 57 percent increase in revenues from towed vehicles, and a seven percent increase in projected ticketing revenues for fiscal year 2012.

That adds up to revenue from parking enforcement 68 percent higher than was budgeted for 2012.  The original, total projection for all parking related revenues (including towing, booting and meter tickets) was $11.6 million. Now it’s about $19 million.

The booting program is administered through ACS, the vendor that also runs the city’s traffic-camera program. The ACS contract expired earlier this year but the city is retaining ACS on a month-to-month basis as it considers bids from eight booting businesses.

Under the Paylock system used by ACS, a motorist who gets booted can call an 800-number listed on the boot, pay the outstanding tickets and attendant fees, and the boot is released. The scofflaw then is required to return the boot to ACS.

Council members, eager to recoup an estimated $50 million in outstanding fines, were pleased with Edmonds’ report.

“Whooee!” said Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson as she prepared to address the council.

But skepticism or hostility toward the aggressive enforcement effort is prevalent.

The Lens’ reporting partners at Fox 8 caught up with New Orleans resident Garth Sevdalis on Thursday. He said it struck him as “kind of a strong penalty to boot someone’s car for one violation.”

Trucker Buck Stroher called the new policy “ridiculous.”

Tom Gogola

Tom Gogola covered criminal justice for The Lens from February 2012 to May 2013. He is a veteran journalist and editor who has written on a range of subjects for many publications, including Newsday, New...