A ride with Boot Girls, 2 women challenging Atlanta's parking enforcement industry
A small round key has unlocked a world of fame and fortune for two balaclava-clad women who are among the most in-demand entrepreneurs in Atlanta.
That key is one of a handful the so-called Boot Girls use mostly around Buckhead, an upscale Atlanta neighborhood, to unlock metal brackets attached to vehicles parked on private property, like one Jaguar on May 5, when I spent the evening with the boot removal Robin Hoods.
"Can I get a picture real quick?" the owner of the car asked the pair while handing me his phone in the fading afternoon light. "I support ya'll."
The Boot Girls, who go by the noms de guerre Boot Baby, who wears a black balaclava, and Boot Sheisty, in pink, have built a following of more than 85,000 across Instagram and TikTok. That's where the Boot Girls offer up the legally dubious practice of boot removals for $50, a price that undercuts parking enforcement companies (which often charge $75 per day for removal), Boot Baby said.
The Boot Girls spoke to us under the condition that NPR does not disclose their legal names because of concerns of possible legal ramifications.
Finding the key to boot removal success
The pair started the business after Boot Sheisty's car got booted while visiting her friend and now-business partner at her apartment complex in April.
Instead of paying the parking enforcement company to have the device removed, they connected with a friend who had a key that could unlock the boot. The pair decided to buy their own keys and "ever since then, we just went on our bull****," Boot Sheisty said.
The Boot Girls obtained their keys from Christian Verrette, owner of ATL Boot Key. The two women, who worked previously as beauticians, average about 40 boot removals per day, Boot Baby said.
"It's just a blessing, honestly," Boot Baby added.
That blessing has come with risks.
Georgia's fraught history with booting
This is the word attorney Matt Wetherington used to describe the booting industry in Georgia, which he and his Atlanta-based firm have fought against for nearly a decade.
"We have sued, I would presume, every single booting company in Georgia," Wetherington told NPR over the phone. "We're trying to stop what I consider piracy, because they're seizing your property, and you're not getting it back until you give them money, and your options for recourse are essentially nonexistent."
Georgia law prohibits booting, except where a local government expressly authorizes the practice. Atlanta, Decatur and Union City are among a small handful of cities in Georgia, or even nationwide, that allow booting on private property by private companies, of which there are about 30 operating in the state, Wetherington said.
"In Atlanta, the booting companies are city council-sanctioned pirates that act as judge, jury and sometimes executioner for perceived parking violations," Wetherington added.
A recent Georgia Supreme Court case provides a glimpse into how lucrative and fraught the state's booting industry is.
In 2018, a man was charged $650 to have a boot removed at the Wesley Chapel Crossing Shopping Center in Decatur.
"It is a crazy thing to say the normal cure for an unauthorized entry on your property is to insist that the trespasser remain on your property," the chief justice said in 2021 during a hearing, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I mean, that's nutso under any conception of the law. ... Where in the world can you say a cure for trespass is to continue the trespass?"
The Georgia Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of the man whose vehicle was booted, the law firm Smith, Gambrell & Russell reported.
The contradiction addressed in that lawsuit is at the heart of the booting issue in Georgia, Wetherington said.
"Georgia is kind of the epicenter of booting and frankly, there is no other community in the world that we're aware of where there is booting practice the way that it is here," Wetherington said.
And yet, thanks to the Boot Girls, this legal framework around booting may soon change, he added.
How the Boot Girls may help shape Georgia law
A bill introduced by two state senators — Democrat Josh McLaurin and Republican John Albers — in the Georgia Legislature is poised to ban booting in the state.
The bill may go to a full Senate vote in early 2024, when Wetherington expects it to pass, he said.
"[U]nlike previously, there's a little bit more momentum this time around, thanks in part to the Boot Girls," Wetherington said. "In what other instance could you ever imagine, where you have someone who says, 'I will charge you $50 to give you back access to your property' and then turn into a celebrity? Just think about how messed up that is for our city. It shouldn't be that way. But that shows you just how bad and just how pervasive booting is in Atlanta."
There are approximately 100,000 boots placed by private parking enforcement companies around Georgia each year, Wetherington said.
Just as the Boot Girls were gaining attention on social media, the Atlanta Police Department released a statement May 3 on how "many motorists within the city are investing in boot keys."
Since the Boot Girls spiked in popularity roughly two weeks ago, Verrette has sold more than 1,200 keys, he says, which translates to $60,000, or about $50 per key.
While "it is not illegal to own a boot key," the Atlanta Police wrote, the use of a boot key to modify, tamper or disengage a booting device from a vehicle could result in a variety of charges, such as criminal trespass, theft of services, theft by taking or second-degree property damage.
Wetherington "strongly disagrees" with the Atlanta Police on the criminality of boot removals by everyday people.
"This is a private dispute between private citizens, and it is civil in nature and should never be considered criminal. At most, this is an instance of trespass. And my big concern is that the city of Atlanta will bring criminal charges that are unjustified, but they're entitled to do," he said. "I support everything [the Boot Girls are] doing. As an attorney, I would be careful in using them and I hope that they're able to keep themselves out of legal jeopardy."
The future of the Boot Girls
Four of the most important things the Boot Girls carry on them on a call are the boot keys, cellphones, pepper spray and the number for their attorney (who is not Wetherington).
"You know, we don't really, we don't look for no problem. So we try to avoid it at all costs. But they do do it. They do come to us," Boot Sheisty said as we pulled away from the Jaguar. "There's been grown men trying to attack us and stepping on us."
These negative interactions have been few and far between, the women said. And as of the publication of this story, they have yet to be charged criminally.
A glimpse at Boot Girls' social media accounts surfaces numerous videos depicting elated customers dancing with their recently removed boots.
The Boot Girls are working to create a line of merchandise, a podcast and recently put a call out for new recruits.
"We're gonna expand and we're also going to do it until we can't," Boot Sheisty said.
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