One ticket. As of this year, that’s all it takes to have your car immobilized (or “booted”) in the City of New Orleans.
Department of Public Works parking administrator Zepporiah Edmonds outlined the change in late March at a City Council committee meeting: “We used to boot vehicles if they had more than three violations.” Now, he explained, the threshold has been reduced to one if the vehicle owner “fails to timely respond to a second notice” or “hasn’t paid a ticket after 120days.”
The root of this change is a 2009 change by the City Council to the immobilization ordinance to provide that “[a]ny 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 or impounded, or both, by any police officer or other person duly authorized.”
The key phrase is “shall be immediately immobilized.” Once you have an outstanding ticket, regardless of whether you actually received the original ticket and regardless of whether a second notice was sent, you’re getting the boot immediately.
This, dear readers, is a blatant violation of the due process rights of motorists under the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions.
Why do I say this with such confidence? It’s because the city has been here before. Back in the early 1980’s, when disco still wasn’t quite dead, one Ulmer Wilson challenged the booting of his auto by the city claiming that the city had inadequate protections before booting vehicles.
The case was fought all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, culminating in a recorded opinion in Wilson v. City of New Orleans, 479 So.2d 891 (La. 1985) (citation included for the benefit of my fellow lawyers and amateur legal eagles).
In the end Ulmer Wilson was vindicated. The majority opinion of the Louisiana Supreme Court was that the “procedure for deciding that a person should be deprived of the use of his automobile falls short of due process requirements.” The Court concluded that because a motor vehicle is a “necessity of modern life,” and because a significant risk of computer error exists, a motorist “must be given some kind of notice and afforded some kind of hearing” prior to immobilization.
Thus, the Court held that the City of New Orleans must give sufficient notice and create an informal procedure to determine whether the criteria for booting have been met.
It’s fairly clear to me that the decision in Wilson v. City of New Orleans casts serious doubt on the constitutionality of the decision by the Department of public Works to boot vehicles after a single parking ticket. The risk of “erroneous deprivation” (a key legal phrase in due process cases involving the seizure of property) is much higher when the city is dealing with a single ticket rather than three or more. That much should be obvious.
And yet, the city has a policy of immediate immobilization. I am not certain what, if anything, the city has done to comply with the Wilson decision, but I am sure that this recent move to boot after a single ticket raises the stakes from a constitutional perspective. The comment from Edmonds seems to suggest that a second notice isn’t even required, raising those stakes even further.
Of course, this is business as usual in the City of New Orleans. The obvious goal behind reducing the booting threshold is to increase collections (i.e., revenue). According to Edmonds, “year to date booting is actually 134% higher than it was in 2011,” which is entirely attributable to lowering the booting threshold.
Worse, the City Council was not made aware that the change had been implemented. According to District “B” Councilwoman Stacy Head, she first heard of the change at the March committee meeting and remains skeptical of booting for a single violation. Keeping other branches of government out of the loop is a mainstay of shady governance.
So beware, my fellow New Orleanians. The city is desperate to boot your car to increase its revenue, and it won’t let a little thing like the Bill of Rights stand in its way.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.