It's big. It's ugly. It looks invincible. But the Denver Boot is
really a marshmallow
                                               by Jim Balderston

It's 25 ponds of cold-rolled, 11-gauge steel and it has a grip like a
pit bull. It has inspired terror--the kind that makes people pay big
money for relief from its clutches in every city it has invaded.
Citizens of Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, New York, New Orleans and
countless other cities have fallen prey to its legendary ability to
create extreme anxiety.

It's the Boot. And it's coming to San Francisco in October.

Just about the time the World Series starts, San Franciscans or
out-of-town visitors with ten or more unpaid San Francisco parking
tickets will face the prospect of finding their cars immobilized with
this bright yellow monster. If the victims discover their booted fate
before 11 pm, they can probably get the thing removed by paying off
all their tickets (and a stiff fine) at a local police station
(assuming they have the money). Later in the evening, the boot patrol
will have gone home, and there will be nothing anyone can do to free a
vehicle from its clutches until the next morning.
When we learned of the impending arrival of the fearsome boot, we
decided to find out for ourselves just how effective this ugly devic
would be. We bought a boot, for $400, from the Palma Auto-Boot Company
in Arlington, Virginia. We clamped it on a car and showed it to a few
mechanically inclined individuals who have a passion for fighting
creeping fascism wherever it rears its head (or boot).

And guess what we found? The boot, the big, ugly scary
auto-immobilizer, is really just a marshmallow
It took our bootbusters no time at all to figure out how to dismantle
and remove the boot, quickly and quietly, with nothing more than a few
common tools that can be bought for less than $30 in any decent
hardware store.

Of course, busting a boot is illegal (unless you bought it yourself).
And since the police will keep records of which cars got the boot,
anyone attempting what the Palma Auto-Boot Company calls "unauthorized
removal" could face an additional fine (for destruction of public
property) and possibly criminal prosecution
But unless the police catch the bootbuster in the act, they can't
actually prove he or she did the dirty deed. In fact, we've alread
heard reports that a few anarchist malcontents who oppose th
imposition of the boot are going to begin removing the things at
random, leaving ordinary boot victims free to plead honest ignorance
of the entire situation.

According to a story in the July 1984 Washington Weekly, police in the
District of Columbia insist that the boots are rarely busted, and ca
be removed only with the proper keys or with "heavy equipment." But
our sources in Washington tell us they have taken off dozens of boots
over the years, often by simply letting the air of the booted tire,
and they have never faced prosecution.

The Boot was originally a French invention. It was first employed i
this country in Denver, in 1953. At that time, it was known as the
"French Boot;" now, it's commonly called the "Denver Boot."
But in recent years, use of the boot has spread to cities in all
corners of the country. Today, virtually every major city uses the

Several manufacturers make versions of the boot, but all are very
similar. The standard device comes in two parts: a clamp that is set
on both the inside and the outside of the wheel rim and tightened wit
a bolt, and an arm that is placed over the clamp, covering the bol
and extending about 18 inches to cover the hubcap and prevent the car
owner from gaining access to the lug nuts and removing the wheel. The
arm is locked onto the clamp with a heavy-duty padlock, which is
protected by a quarter-inch thick steel box .

A notice is then attached to the car, warning the driver not to move
the vehicle unless he or she wants to risk severe damage.

Denver Parking Authority boss Ken Jaeger told the Bay Guardian that
his city has some 150 boots, and immobilizes 7,000 cars a year. In
Denver, a city of 500,000 people, a car is eligible for the boot if it
is found to have three or more unpaid parking tickets more than 30
days old.

He said the city boots between 15 and 20 cars a day, with 
five-person boot crew. It costs $50 to have a boot removed in Denver
San Francisco's boot program is scheduled to begin operation sometime
in October, according to Rina Cutler, who will be administering the
new plan. "Right now we are in the draft stage," she told the Bay
Guardian. "By May 1st we plan to begin getting the word out to the

Cutler came to San Francisco in January, after working in the boot
program in Boston. She said San Francisco plans to have nine people on
the boot team, using an initial stock of 100 boots
Cars with ten or more unpaid tickets will be eligible for the boot
After a car accrues its tenth unpaid ticket, the owner will have a
60-day period before the car's license plate shows up on the boot-list
computer. Cuter said the de-booting fee has yet to be set, but will be
in the "$35 to $50 range."
As in Denver's program, San Francisco bootees will have 72 hours to
pay off their tickets before the car is towed into the city auto
pound. The car owner will then have to pay the cost of his or her
accrued tickets, the de-booting fee, towing and any storage charges
that have accumulated.

The boot program will have a trial period of one year in San
Francisco, after which it will be evaluated.

But if Cutler's experience in Boston is any indication, the boot will
be here to stay. Simply put, the boot is a source of revenue. "In
1989, Boston booted 9,500 cars, which brought in some $190,000,"
Cutler said. News reports from cities like Chicago describe
parking-ticket payoff revenue at $140,000 a day, a four-fold increase
over pre-boot days. In Washington, D.C., parking-ticket revenues were
outrunning the cost of boot crews by a ten-to-one ratio in 1984.

Cutler said the boot's most dramatic strength is its ability to
inspire traffic scofflaws to come forward and pay off their tickets.

Attached to the non-curb side of a car, painted bright yellow or
orange, a boot is pretty hard to miss. "We found that after we booted
a car in a neighborhood, people from that neighborhood would come in
and pay off tickets," she said. "They see the boot and come in an

Cutler said that booting of cars would generally take place in San
Francisco during "the daylight hours." Boot-removal crews would be
available until 11 pm, after which a booted car would have to remain
where it was until morning. People who lacked the cash to pay off back
tickets would have to wait until they could get a hearing before a
judge to work out a payment plan before the boot would be moved.

Under the present draft of the San Francisco boot plan, a booted car
would be towed if the tickets weren't paid off within 72 hours. Towin
would add $80 to the costs, and storage costs could increase the the
bill even more.

Cutler said that cars in tow-away zones would be towed, not booted, to
prevent further congestion.

Jaeger said it is expected in any boot program that some of the
devices will be damaged by people attempting to drive off while the
are attached, or to remove them forcibly. "Twenty to 30 boots are
partially damaged in Denver each year," he said.

Cutler said that in Boston, one or two boots were removed illegall
out of every 150 cars booted. Boston has a $300 fine for destroying a
boot, she said, adding that, in Boston, criminal charges can be filed
against a bootbuster.

She said a similar arrangement would exist when the plan is instituted
in San Francisco later this year.

But San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown told the Bay Guardian the
city would be hard-pressed to prove that any car owner had actually
removed a boot. "They'd have to take it to court," Brown said. "And
the city would carry the burden of proof, it would seem to me.
Brown expressed concern over the entire boot scheme. "In a society
that has expressed such a strong interest in liberty, the boot seems
to lack compatibility," he said. "It seems awfully intrusive and
Brown said the nationwide trend toward programs like the boot is
increasingly limiting people's freedoms. "The vise is closing o
people," he said. "There is not a hell of a lot of breathing room i
society anymore."



       Parking boots are public property. The parking-control
       officers who attach them to your wheels intend for the
       to stay there until you've paid off your fines.
       Removing the boot without authorization, or damaging it
       in any way, is a crime.

       Nevertheless, in cities like Denver and Boston, where
       the boot has been a part of life for years, the
       contraptions occasionally disappear. In some cities,
       more than 10 percent of the boot stock has vanished or
       been rendered inoperable (see main story).

        That came as no surprise to the mechanical experts wh
       examined our boot. The boot, they say, is nowhere nea
       as tough as it looks. Anyone with less than $30 worth
       of basic hand tools and enough dexterity to screw in a
       light bulb can probably break the boot's grip on a car
       wheel in about ten minutes.

       The boot is designed to intimidate, our experts say;
       its toughest parts are the ones that would be the mos
       obvious targets for boot-busting vandals-- the lock
       mechanism, for example. With a special tamper-resistant
       padlock surrounded by a box made of quarter inch carbon
       steel plates, the lock will stand up to just about
       anything short of a low-yield nuclear device. So our
       bootbusters ignored the lock and looked for other,
       less-obvious places where the boot could be attacked.
       It took them no time to discover several major weak
       points in the boot's protective armor.
       Deflating the tire. If the boot is going to work
       properly, it must be properly installed, and that's not
       an easy process--especially in the dark, when you have
       a long night of boot-installing ahead. if the
       installation is even a bit sloppy (that is, if the jaws
       that attach the boot to the wheel are a little bit
       loose), it's often possible to remove the boot b
       letting the air out of the tire and simply sliding the
       whole thing off.

       This is by far the simplest strategy. It doesn't always
       work-- conscientious installers can prevent it almost
       every time, and some car wheels don't leave enough room
       for the process anyway. But veterans of boot-happy
       cities have told us they've removed dozens of boots
       this way, quickly, quietly and easily.

       The hubcap plate. A key element to the boot's
       effectiveness is its ability to prevent car-owners fro
       getting access to the lug nuts on the booted wheel. One
       the lug nuts are accessible, the wheel can be removed
       and replaced with a spare tire, and the car can be
       driven away.
       If the boot is properly installed, the plate will be
       tightly secured over the hubcaps, making it impossible
       even to imagine loosening the lug nuts. But the plate
       is one of the more flimsy parts of the boot; it's
       attached by a half -inch swivel pin that is spot-welde
       to the frame. As our boot-busting experts explained
       spot welds that hold together two pieces of metal of
       different thicknesses are inherently weak. There are
       several such welds on the boot, and this one is
       especially vulnerable.

       With a common battery-powered drill and a 15-cent
       grinding wheel or "cut-off tool" (see photos), one o
       our experts was able to grind away most of the weld on
       the pin in about two minutes. With a five-dollar col
       chisel and a standard hammer, he did the same job even

       Once the weld is broken, a quick blow with a hammer
       forced the pin out, releasing the plate from the boot
       frame and making it easy to change the tire and rive
       away, leaving the old, boot-laden tire behind (or
       safely stowed in the trunk as a souvenir)
       The jaw-to-frame pins. The main frame of the boot--the
       "arm"--fits into a pair of metal pins on the
       wheel-clamp, or "jaw" (see main story, illustrations).
       The pins are a central element of the boot's structure.
       They're also one of its weakest links.

       The pins are only about an inch long. When the boot is
       installed, they appear to be connected to each other
       through some sort of thick, central rod. In fact
       they're just stuck into holes drilled in the frame, an
       spot-welded at the bottom.

       Even when the boot is assembled, there's plenty of fre
       play between the arm and the pins. A few strong, sharp
       blows with a hammer on the top of the pins quickly
       breaks them free and makes them easy to remove. With
       those pins gone, the boot comes apart immediately
       The welds holding the lock-box to the frame. For all
       the effort that the boot-makers put into developing a
       impregnable locking mechanism, it's amazing how loosel
       the lock-box is attached to the rest of the boot. Fou
       flimsy spot-welds hold the entire
       padlock-and-coverplate assembly to the main boot frame.
       It took and expert just a few seconds to chip away one
       of the welds with a chisel and hammer; when one of our
       spastic, incompetent, weak-wristed editors tried it on
       a second weld a few days later, it took less than a

       Once the lock-box is liberated from the frame, the
       entire boot can be dismantled and removed quickly with
       a ratchet and standard (16-inch) spark-plug socket.

       The arm itself. If all else fails, our expert
       discovered they could actually cut through the
       tough-looking steel of the main arm with a
       battery-powered drill and a cut-off tool. Forget th
       oxyacetylene torches and the nitric acid--the boot ar
       cuts like butter with a cheap hobbyist's tool. By our
       calculations, a standard drill-and-cut-off tool set-up
       can cut through the main arm in less than ten minutes.
       The padlock keys. When the parking-control officers
       come to remove a boot, the first thing they have to do
       is unlock the padlock. Since the city is buying about
       100 of the monsters, it seems highly unlikely that
       every boot will have a different key. In other cities,
       like Denver, a single master key unlocks them all
       That means, of course, than an anarchist thug with a
       penchant for troublemaking (or a wily hustler with an
       eye for a quick profit) could easily dismantle an
       remove the boot from some poor innocent scofflaw's
       illegally parked car, take the thing home, bust th
       lock off and pay a less-than scrupulous locksmith to
       make up a new key--a key that would instantly unlock
       every boot in the city
       Of course, the city can always change all the padlocks
       on a regular basis (although they don't come cheap)
       But if we know this city, the pirates will soon b
       making and selling the keys faster than the cops ca
       replace the locks, forcing the taxpayers to pour
       ever-increasing sums of money into a parking law-
       enforcement mechanism that is neither appropriate nor
       effective for San Francisco.