On a hot day in July, Victoria Knight saw her car being towed. She glared at the yellow boot on her front driver’s side wheel and became overwhelmed by what she was witnessing.
“It was terrifying because I had just left court, and it was in the middle of July and it was extremely hot and I come out and my car is being booted and towed,” Knight said. “They said it was a no-parking zone, but it was in a parking lot.”
Knight became another victim of the previously unregulated practice of car booting by a local tow company. The City of Memphis passed an ordinance in July that now puts towing companies engaging in predatory booting on notice. Towing companies had until Oct. 1 to file for a $500 city permit for booting. They can charge no more than $50 to remove a boot from a vehicle and must take three forms of payment, including cash.
Of about 10 eligible local companies, so far, two have filed an application with the City of Memphis’ permits office and were approved by the transportation commission:
- Orlando Croft and Johnathon Croft — 1661 International Drive, Suite 400 — Secure Assets, LLC—d/b/a “ Secure Assets”
- Kevin P. Lawrence — 788 South Main St. — P B & J Towing Service I & II, LLC — d/b/a “P B & J Towing Service”
Memphis’ previously unregulated towing industry put citizens at risk of harsh fees, reportedly as high as $500. Knight’s experience is one of many stories of a Memphis motorist feeling victimized by a roving tow company.
Some citizens welcome the new law because excessive booting fees are a financial burden on many who have no means of paying restitution. Much like calls for bail reform in Memphis, the heavy burden of warrants and the financial costs of such an ordeal leave many citizens victimized by a system that depends on the revenue. Memphis is one of the poorest cities in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and runs the risk of being deficient in restorative practices for the most vulnerable of the population.
Without an itemization of boot and towing fees, she was forced to pay in cash to retrieve her vehicle. As a family and consumer sciences teacher, Knight’s personal budget was unexpectedly exploited by a towing company unwilling to offer evidence for the charge or due process to prevent towing.
“I’m kind of on the line because it’s like then if I’m wrong, then I understand, but if I’m not wrong and you’re just trying to get my money … where’s the money going? Who’s getting a cut of the money?”
Aubrey Howard, the city’s permit-licenses administrator, said these efforts are a welcome step for the city, which now joins the ranks of other jurisdictions with such ordinances on the books.
“We looked at six or seven cities, and the average fee was $55 to $60 dollars,” Howard said. “We are not trying to restrain trade. We are looking out for public welfare and public safety. This has to do with people immobilizing people’s cars.”
Howard notes the city has no information on the number of towing companies that boot cars and their revenue. With regulation, the city can offer citizens due process and protection from exploitation: “This is the first opportunity the city has to monitor this industry,” he said.
And the law will more so protect private business owners who want to ensure their patrons have a place to park or to make vacant lots less vulnerable.
“The ordinance is a step in the right direction in resolving the high cost of fines that lead to financial hardships for the city’s low-income residents,” according to Julie Nelson, director for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).
“This issue is compounded for low-income communities of color,” Nelson said, “as data shows that license suspension due to unpaid traffic tickets or failure to appear rates are highest in low-income neighborhoods that are predominately Latino and black, often a symptom of larger issues of structural inequities.”
This is not the first time the city has been reproached about fines to pay for city operations, while towing the line of civil liberties violations and due process. The City of Memphis uses booting companies in pursuit of unpaid traffic tickets and also levies up to $60 in late fees on top of the traffic and booting fines.
In the city’s 2016 Fiscal Year report the City Court Clerk’s Traffic Violations Bureau amassed more than 225,000 traffic and parking violations leading to over $3.8 million dollars in revenue that covers nearly half of the actual $7.8 million operating budget for the City Court Clerk’s office.
When local governments benefit from these regressive revenue schemes, they remain complicit to the structural inequality while paying for their operations and capital projects, according to policy experts like Nelson. They see practices such as booting and impounding as a perpetual criminalization of poverty, which significantly impacts low-income black and brown communities more than others. Being impoverished has contributed to calls for bail reform because of the significant number of black and brown populations who could not find the means to avoid jail for nonviolent offenses like a suspended license.
Memphians who have been improperly booted are encouraged to contact the City of Memphis’ Permits office at (901) 636–6711 or the Memphis Police nonemergency dispatch at (901) 545–2677.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.