Last week, a Monmouth County-based state assemblyman told the press that Hoboken’s widespread use of wheel clamps – colloquially known as “boots” – was perhaps illegal, referring to a state statute saying that booting cars is permitted “if there are any outstanding warrants against the vehicle.”
The city of Hoboken has been booting cars for years if they are parked in the wrong place – for instance, booting visitors on the side of the street that allows resident parking. But many people have said the signs describing the rules are confusing and that immobilizing someone’s car for a first offense is too harsh.
The state’s booting law, passed in 1985, was followed up by a 1991 law in Hoboken’s own municipal code that also allows for cars with outstanding warrants to be booted. However, the city passed a set of laws under Mayor Dawn Zimmer in 2010 making it legal for Hoboken to boot cars for other reasons.
Now, Declan O’Scanlon, a state assemblyman from Monmouth County with “a penchant for motorists’ rights,” who has fought red light cameras in the state, says he plans to take on the issue in the state legislature by introducing a new law. The law will tighten rules about municipalities deciding their own booting policies that could contradict state codes.
“It’s an abuse of motorists,” said the Republican assemblyman. “If you want to fine people for illegally parking, fair enough. If you want to tow, fair enough. If you want to boot people with outstanding warrants, that’s fair enough too. But if you’re booting random people who made a simple parking mistake, that’s just a cash grab.”
“If you’re booting random people who made a simple parking mistake, that’s just a cash grab.” – State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon
Recent coverage in the Reporter revealed that the city pulled in nearly $5.6 million in revenue from parking tickets in 2013, almost $1 million more than in 2012. And though the city forks over $11.50 of every ticket to the state, there is still a financial gain for the city – 23.8 percent of this year’s parking utility budget will be funneled into the city’s coffers.
City spokesman Juan Melli declined this week to say how much of the $5.6 million in revenue came from booted cars.
Furthermore, both Zimmer and Councilman Peter Cunningham pledged in 2011 to look at confusing city signage about whether cars can park in the city for more than four hours without a permit, if the driver moves their car. When asked about this for a story last month, Melli said the city is working on a parking master plan and is reviewing the city’s policies. However, in the meantime, hundreds of people who have been and still may be getting booted due to confusing signage, for three years and counting.
Cunningham wrote in a constituent letter in January of 2012, “Lastly relating to parking and transportation, the current four hour rule will be tweaked. Currently the law says for anyone without a valid permit will have a four hour grace period after which they will be ticketed, booted, etc. The law does not say 'grace period' per DAY, though it's implied…we're working on another solution that I believe will be more satisfactory in the end.”
The bill for a booted motorist usually costs upwards of $200, even for one night. The amount comes from court and administrative fees, the parking ticket itself, and of course, the $100 boot removal fee.
Drivers have reported many problems in getting the boot off their car, with one telling a story of having to sit in his car all night in the cold because the boot would not come off.
Melli has said that in an emergency, a driver can call the police. However, the driver – who is the CEO of a company in Astoria and was in town for business – said the police could not help him.
What the laws say
The original New Jersey booting law, passed in 1985, says that municipalities may “make, amend, repeal and enforce an ordinance authorizing the impoundment or immobilization of a vehicle found within the jurisdiction of that municipality if there are any outstanding warrants against the vehicle.”
It does not, however, say that municipalities cannot boot a car for other reasons. So it incorrect to claim that Hoboken is breaking the law.
O’Scanlon acknowledged this and said it’s a “gray area.” But he said that a city should not take advantage of this loophole to use as a revenue producer.
“My interpretation of the law’s intent is to say that you can [boot] under these circumstances, and if the circumstances don’t exist, you can’t [boot],” said O’Scanlon. “But I will grant you that if you’ve got local elected officials who want to make money off their motorists, they could claim a gray area. But it would say nothing positive about elected officials who do so.”
A similar law in Hoboken’s municipal code was passed by the city council in 1991, under Mayor Patrick Pasculli: “Any member of the Police Department, Parking Authority or Parking Enforcement Bureau may cause the immobilization or impoundment of such a vehicle found within the jurisdiction of the City of Hoboken, if there are any outstanding warrants against such vehicle,” said the city’s law.
Both laws, O’Scanlon says, are designed to set limits on booting.
Hoboken’s other booting laws – passed in 2010 under Zimmer – allow for the ticketing, booting, and eventual towing of cars that violate permit parking rules.
Zimmer did not respond to many of the Reporter’s questions about the policy last week. Instead, she issued a statement: “Hoboken’s population has increased dramatically to over 50,000 people in one square mile, and we have also become a very popular place for visitors. These two dynamics make it challenging to ensure that parking on the street is available for Hoboken residents as well as visitors to our city. The city’s booting policy is not a recent development and in fact started over a decade ago under a previous administration. It was established as a way to ensure that parking is available for residents and as a less harsh alternative strategy to towing cars.”
However, members of the Zimmer administration have acknowledged that they have increased enforcement. The use of computerized vans to find those who move their cars around the city to avoid the four-hour rule has also led to increased ticketing of drivers who may not understand the signs.
The city’s signs say that a car may only park for four hours – but don’t make it clear if that refers to the specific spot, or the whole town. A Fox News investigative report in 2011 showed that a person can park in Hoboken, leave for several hours, come back, and still be erroneously ticketed because the computer system will assume they’ve been in town all that time.
Breaking the rules?
A Hudson County lawyer who specializes in traffic and parking law, Richard Reinartz, said that a municipality seeking to supersede the state law by introducing its own ordinances may not be playing by the rules.
“The state statute that gives New Jersey municipalities the authority to create ordinances allowing booting authorizes the practice where there are ‘outstanding warrants against the vehicle,’ ” he said. “Thus, city ordinances that authorize the booting of vehicles without outstanding warrants for minor violations, such as parking in ‘residents only’ spaces, may not be in harmony with state law, if not overly oppressive.”
Besides citing the 2010 law, Melli declined to respond to questions about the city’s interpretation of its own booting laws, as well as how they relate to the state’s law.
Stories of frustration
In online forums and letters to the Reporter, Hoboken residents and visitors alike have long criticized the booting policy.
Last week, Jeanne Oterson, the spokeswoman for a statewide healthcare workers’ union, was in Hoboken for a business meeting. She said that this past Wednesday, she was thrilled to find an open parking spot and saw no signage to tell her she couldn’t park there. After her two-hour meeting, Oterson returned to find a boot on her car. She followed the city’s guidelines for boot removal, but it took her four hours to get her car back.
She said that the computers weren’t working properly, and the Parking Utility workers were polite but didn’t do much to rectify the situation.
Four hours later, Oterson left Hoboken. On Thursday, she said she won’t be coming back.
“It will be the last time I held a business meeting in Hoboken,” she said. “It appears to me to be more about making money than protecting residents.”
She added, “I understand why you want to protects residents’ right to parking, but you need to have better, clearer signage or you just need to give tickets. It seems to be a deliberate attempt to make money off of visitors.”
O’Scanlon said that booting also can prove dangerous for some citizens, including pregnant women and senior citizens.
Oterson noted that the financial cost is no easy burden. Behind her in line at HPU last week was a Hoboken resident who was booted. That person, she said, was a college student.
“$220 isn’t easy for me to pay, but I can do it,” said Oterson. “For this woman it was just abusive.”
O’Scanlon has noted before that a person calling the number to get the boot off the car late at night might not have a credit card, and thus could be stranded.
Laws and signs could change
In her statement, Zimmer said a full review of the city’s parking policies could mark an end to both booting and confusing signage.
“Last year, the city of Hoboken hired a nationally recognized parking consulting firm to analyze and evaluate the city’s parking situation and prepare a parking and transportation master plan,” she said. “The development of a final parking plan has involved, and will continue to include outreach to the community, including residents and business owners, to understand our city’s parking issues. The plan will include recommendations for changes to the city’s parking policies, including our booting policy.”
O’Scanlon said that he had not discussed his criticisms with anyone in Hoboken yet. He said that Zimmer’s review is encouraging, and said he hoped other municipalities that allow the booting of cars without outstanding tickets would follow her lead.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot to talk about. This is wrong and that’s what we need to hear from them,” he said. “There are a lot of issues in New Jersey that are ripe for discussion right now, but I don’t think this is one of them. The mayor says that her booting laws are under review, I would applaud her and the governing body if they were to do away with them swiftly.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org