Episode 921: Tales From The Parking Lot : Planet Money Three stories: A tire-booting vigilante, a surge price conspiracy, and the civil rights fight over parking tickets.
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Episode 921: Tales From The Parking Lot

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Episode 921: Tales From The Parking Lot

Episode 921: Tales From The Parking Lot

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KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

Sarah Johnston's (ph) brother was hungry. That's how all this started. Last fall, she was driving her brother home after minor leg surgery. They pass this strip mall, and her brother spots a Jamba Juice.

SARAH JOHNSTON: He - like, can we pull in there and get some Jamba Juice? Like, that sounds so good. Parking lot's empty. We park right in front of Jamba Juice.

NICK FOUNTAIN, HOST:

They get their Jamba, and then her brother sees a Jimmy John's. And he's like, can we also get sandwiches?

DUFFIN: The Jamba Juice and the Jimmy John's are in the same parking lot, but they're owned by different people. And Jimmy John's is in a separate building in the corner of the lot, and it's cordoned off.

JOHNSTON: So there's this barrier - like, a chain - separating this - the parking lot we're in from the Jimmy John's.

DUFFIN: I have a picture of this chain. It's thick and metal. It looks like a giant industrial version of those velvet ropes you see at red carpets, except this one is covered in yellow rubber, not velvet.

FOUNTAIN: And right beyond the chain, there are these huge signs every 6 feet or so that say, no parking for Jimmy John's customers. Park on the street or in our parking lot. So the side of the parking lot that Sarah is in is not for Jimmy John's customers.

DUFFIN: But, like, who among us would actually move our cars in this situation? Like, the Jamba Juice is just right next door. They're already parked. So Sarah and her brother just step over the chain and get their Jimmy John's sandwich. They're hobbling back to the car. Her brother's on crutches.

JOHNSTON: And we see this bright yellow boot stuck on my truck tire.

DUFFIN: A boot, like the thing they immobilize your car tires with.

JOHNSTON: And immediately, just look around the parking lot. Like, wow, like, that had to have just happened.

DUFFIN: They were only in the Jimmy John's for 17 minutes. She showed me the receipts.

JOHNSTON: My brother is still on narcotics. And he starts yelling, like, who put this on here? Where are you? Come talk to me. And there's a guy starting to get into a black sedan.

DUFFIN: The guy walks over to them and says, if you want that boot off, you have to give me $75 because this is Jamba Juice parking only. And they pull out their Jamba Juice shakes.

JOHNSTON: We were one of those customers. We hadn't even drank them yet.

DUFFIN: They're still slushy. And he says, you were Jamba Juice customers until you crossed into the island of Jimmy John's.

JOHNSTON: The moment you step onto the Jimmy John's premises, you're no longer a customer, and then you're in violation.

DUFFIN: What?

FOUNTAIN: So at this point, the Jamba Juice employees come out and tell the guy...

JOHNSTON: They are our customers. Please take the boot off of their vehicle.

DUFFIN: He says, no, the boot stays on. And Jamba Juice appears to have no power here. They apparently did not hire this guy. And now Sarah is like, wait; what is happening here? If Jamba Juice doesn't want this guy booting people, why is he there?

FOUNTAIN: But Sarah's brother is fresh from surgery, still has ice packs strapped to his leg. She is afraid to push this any longer.

DUFFIN: So she pays and drives away furious. And then she did what anybody should do if they stumble upon a mystery. You should email us.

FOUNTAIN: Planetmoney@npr.org.

JOHNSTON: Is this legit?

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON RICE, BRIAN WALTER KEATING AND DERRICK JOEL GREGORY SONG, "BETTER DAYS ARE GONNA COME")

FOUNTAIN: Is this legit? Who is this parking guy? Is he with the government? Is he a vigilante? Is this even legal?

DUFFIN: Sarah, we are on the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON RICE, BRIAN WALTER KEATING AND DERRICK JOEL GREGORY SONG, "BETTER DAYS ARE GONNA COME")

DUFFIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I am Karen Duffin.

FOUNTAIN: And I'm Nick Fountain. There is something about parking that just leads to conflict. It brings out the worst in us.

DUFFIN: Today on the show, the parking lot wars. We solve the mystery of the Jimmy John's parking lot vigilante and learn something about parking lots everywhere. And, Nick, you're going to hit the road and find a couple more parking stories.

FOUNTAIN: I've heard a rumor that there's a straight-up conspiracy going down in a parking lot just outside of the nation's capital.

DUFFIN: And we have the story of a Michigan lawyer who's trying to overturn hundreds of millions of dollars in parking tickets with the Constitution.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON RICE, BRIAN WALTER KEATING AND DERRICK JOEL GREGORY SONG, "BETTER DAYS ARE GONNA COME")

DUFFIN: I have been looking into Sarah's mystery for an amount of time that I am too embarrassed to tell you, but I have become a little obsessed with this strip mall in Salt Lake. It's called the 4th South Market. And the first thing I wanted to do, of course, was talk directly to the guy in the mysterious black sedan. I am actually from Salt Lake. I was born there. So I dispatched someone I know there to case the 4th South Market parking lot.

LAURA STEVENS: Do you have any fun plans this weekend?

DUFFIN: This is my friend Laura Stevens (ph). She drives in, and she parks by Jamba Juice, like Sarah. She walks slowly towards Jimmy John's.

STEVENS: Bait him. Let's bait him.

DUFFIN: OK.

Trying to lure the parking vigilante out of his sedan.

STEVENS: I'm going to sneak under that chain as if I'm going to Jimmy John's.

DUFFIN: He does not take the bait. But she does get us a clue.

STEVENS: There are literally one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine signs. JJ's customer parking. No Jimmy John's parking in this lot. JJ's customer parking.

DUFFIN: At the bottom of the sign, there is a phone number and a name - Parking Solutions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If you are calling because your vehicle has been immobilized, please press one.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Please hold while I try to connect you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: I looked them up. They have an F rating from the Better Business Bureau and a trail of lawsuits.

Hey there. My name's Karen Duffin. I'm a reporter at National Public Radio.

They would not go on the record with me. They would not tell me who hired them. So this is when my obsession really kicked in.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

DUFFIN: I started calling...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Salt Lake City civil enforcement.

DUFFIN: ...Anyone in Salt Lake City...

My name is Karen Duffin. I'm a reporter.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Good morning, public services. This is...

DUFFIN: ...Who might have anything to do...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...Manager...

DUFFIN: ...With parking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: ...For the sustainability division.

DUFFIN: The streets department.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Streets, how can we help you?

DUFFIN: Then zoning.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That's zoning, but I can just transfer you.

DUFFIN: Someone sent me to corporations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Corporations, may I help you?

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

DUFFIN: Public services.

LORNA VOGT: Hello, this is Lorna.

DUFFIN: Hi, Lorna. This is Karen Duffin.

This is Lorna Vogt. She oversees the parking division in Salt Lake, and she is very familiar with this strip mall.

VOGT: Yes, I know the one. I had the same experience.

DUFFIN: Really?

VOGT: It was just a guy in an individual, unmarked car that got me.

DUFFIN: I asked her, does the city do this kind of booting? She was almost offended by the question.

VOGT: I mean, we can't just take your property from you.

DUFFIN: And if the city tickets you or boots you, you can contest it. But it's not clear who you appeal to in the Jamba Juice parking lot, which leaves me with one final question. Is this legal? OK, two questions. If it is, what? I call the Salt Lake City Police Department. They, too, are very familiar with this parking lot.

GREG WILKING: Yeah, it happens very often.

DUFFIN: This is Detective Greg Wilking. And he says, yes, what is happening in that parking lot is legal because that parking lot is on private property.

WILKING: What we're dealing with is private property. And the businesses, they have the right to tow or boot your vehicle, and especially if it's posted.

DUFFIN: He says unless a crime is committed, there is nothing the police can do.

WILKING: There's very few things that can be enforced on private property.

DUFFIN: Like, if you're in a mall parking lot and you run a stop sign, Greg, he can't pull you over. The mall cops can, but Greg cannot. So if you are Sarah standing in that Jamba Juice parking lot, your only recourse is to sue the parking company for $75, which is just high enough a price that you are angry and just low enough that a single customer probably won't sue.

But there is one company that has a lot of customers that are being booted, and that is, of course, Jimmy John's. So it seems like they have the most incentive of anyone to solve this problem. I called them up.

ROBERT MADSEN: We just keep getting bombarded with customer complaints.

DUFFIN: This is Robert Madsen. He's the CFO of a development company that owns this Jimmy John's. He says he gets a handful of calls about this every week. It is a big problem for them. In fact, he analyzed all of their one-star reviews.

MADSEN: Of the people that left a message about why they're giving a one-star review, 68% were related to a boot.

DUFFIN: Wow.

Robert told me that, for years, there was peace in the 4th South parking lot. You could park anywhere you wanted. But then, one day, the owner of the strip mall set up those chains. Then he hired that sneaky booter guy. And Robert told me that this has become such a problem, they have hired someone not to make sandwiches, but to stand outside by that chain all day long just to say, no, no, no, trust me; you do not want to cross that line. He says they've stopped 820 people from parking in the wrong parking lot in just the past six months. They spend nearly $30,000 on security and this parking monitor, more than 10% of what that store even earns in a year.

And Robert estimates that Parking Solutions, the company that is doing all of this booting, that they get nearly $200,000 in boots a year on just this parking lot alone. They would not confirm this with me, but Robert says the Parking Solutions guy told him that they split 50-50 with the strip mall landlord.

It's like the owners of this parking lot have found this petty loophole in parking lot law that any parking lot owner anywhere could take advantage of. It may feel like public property. You're in a parking lot, not inside a business. It even looks like public property. There's painted lines, even stop signs sometimes. So it feels like a place where the normal rules apply. But the moment you step into a private parking lot, you have stepped into the Wild West, where the rules are whatever they say they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON KELLEY AND SKINNY WILLIAMS' "ONE MORE DAY TO GO")

DUFFIN: Hello, Nick Fountain. While I was calling every bureaucrat in Salt Lake City, you were off chasing a different parking lot story. All you told me is that you would call me when you got to a parking lot. So tell me, where are you calling me from?

FOUNTAIN: OK, if you leave Washington National Airport and you take the free hotel shuttle to the closest Holiday Inn and you walk just 50 feet down the street, you will get to a parking lot. That's where I am right now.

DUFFIN: I can hear the cars.

FOUNTAIN: Excuse me, sir. Which lot is Uber?

And I'm here because I heard that in this parking lot, Uber drivers are gaming the system.

DUFFIN: OK. All right. A parking-lot-based mystery, I'm in.

FOUNTAIN: So Uber drivers really didn't want to be recorded talking about this.

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #1: Nobody. Nobody's talking with you.

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #2: They don't speak English - nobody.

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #1: Yeah, you are freaking...

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #2: Do you speak English?

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #1: ...Everybody out (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED UBER DRIVER #3: We don't want it recorded - anything (ph).

FOUNTAIN: OK. I don't need to record. I'll turn it off.

But I've spent the afternoon talking to drivers about what it's like to work for Uber around here. And they told me basically the same story that you hear from every Uber driver. Mainly, it's really hard. They're barely making any money, especially when you consider the wear and tear they're putting on cars. But they told me the one place they're sometimes making money is the surge.

DUFFIN: I hate the surge. The surge is when there's, like, a limited supply of the drivers. There's lots of demand. Rainstorm happens, and, like, you're dying and you want to get out of the rain, and you look at Uber, and all the sudden it's three times more. Uber jacks up the price to encourage more drivers to come out.

FOUNTAIN: Yes. I, too, hate the surge. And here in this little parking lot, it's not just strictly supply and demand. Some guys that I talked to told me, sometimes, they are manipulating the system.

DUFFIN: What?

FOUNTAIN: Here's how it works. They have these apps that tell them when a big surge is about to come, when a bunch of planes are going to land. And they'll sit in their cars, and they won't log in to the app till one of their buddies says the surge is getting higher, the surge is getting higher. Don't get on. Don't get on. OK, now everybody go on. The surge is really high. Let's all go make some money.

DUFFIN: What? So they're basically, like, manufacturing scarcity to create their own surge. Like, it's not an act of God like it started raining. It's, like, a bunch of Uber drivers in a parking lot decided not to sign in to their app.

FOUNTAIN: And I asked them, like, does this make you feel bad because you're screwing over people like me who use the app? And they're like, I don't know, man; take the subway, wait a little bit or realize that we're not getting paid a lot, right?

And I should say that I learned about this from a local ABC news report. And a lot of these guys were super pissed about that news report because a few things happened after that. One, some of them got fired by Uber or kicked off the app. Now there's a police officer who, like, patrols the parking lot and gives people tickets if they're not on their app, aka they're trying to get the surge to go up. Some guy actually showed me his ticket. And Uber has capped the surge at $10 a ride.

DUFFIN: Wow.

FOUNTAIN: So they're really mad about that.

DUFFIN: OK. But also, like, you can get a ticket from the cops if you're not on your app.

FOUNTAIN: It's weird, but it's a parking lot owned by the airport.

DUFFIN: Oh, OK, I see. These are airport cops, not city cops, so this is a private parking lot. And, as we have learned, in a private parking lot, you get to make whatever Wild West rules that you want.

FOUNTAIN: Exactly. And this is a super interesting parking lot.

DUFFIN: Did you have some existential thoughts while inhaling car fumes in the parking lot?

FOUNTAIN: I did. So here's what I think. We are in this economy that more and more is becoming atomized, right? We're in the gig economy. And all of these men and women who have these jobs barely get to meet each other and get to talk about their working conditions. But one place where all these Uber drivers meet up would be the airport parking lot.

DUFFIN: It's like the watercooler of the Uber driving crowd.

FOUNTAIN: It's the watercooler of the gig economy. It's the factory floor of our modern age. And, of course, the first act of collective action of the gig economy that I've really heard about would come out of here.

DUFFIN: That makes sense, actually.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. I should get off the phone because there's a bunch of guys praying right next to me. I'll see you back up in New York.

DUFFIN: OK. All right. Safe travels.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHAN SECHI'S "SWEET TALKER")

DUFFIN: After the break, we meet the lawyer who is trying to overturn hundreds of millions of dollars in parking tickets.

Nick Fountain.

FOUNTAIN: Well, hello there.

DUFFIN: You're back.

FOUNTAIN: Yep. Got on the Amtrak, did some audio editing and here I am, 30 seconds later.

DUFFIN: Welcome back. You are just in time for our last story, which is also about parking, but this one has to do with the Constitution.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. The story starts in 2017 in a two-hour parking spot outside the courthouse in Saginaw, Mich. A lawyer named Matt Gronda was sitting in his Ford F-150 taking some calls.

MATT GRONDA: Well, I'm on the road quite a bit. So I mean, I think myself, like most lawyers, have quite a few conversations in their vehicle.

DUFFIN: He was on the phone with Phil Ellison, another lawyer. They work together a lot on class actions. They like to sue the government on behalf of a bunch of people with hopes that they will get monetary damages.

FOUNTAIN: And while he was talking to Phil, he noticed in his rearview mirror someone walking up the street.

GRONDA: I saw the meter maid, you know, kind of approaching up the side street marking everyone's tire with their tire wand.

DUFFIN: The tire wand - you know these things. Like, when you park in a two-hour parking spot, parking enforcement officers will go around the parking lot and mark everyone's tires with chalk. And then when they come back two hours later, if the chalk is still in the same place, you get a ticket.

FOUNTAIN: And so Matt's looking at this happening behind him. Parking enforcement officer getting closer - chalk. Next car - chalk. Next car - chalk.

GRONDA: The thought had occurred to me when she was about three or four cars behind me. It just popped in my head.

DUFFIN: Sitting there in his truck, Matt thinks, wait; did I just witness a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures?

GRONDA: I literally blurted out, is this a search? (Laughter) It's such a lawyer question. It was a lawyer question. You know, we analyze the world a little bit differently than the average person.

FOUNTAIN: And Matt's lawyer friend Phil on the phone says, huh.

GRONDA: He kind of paused for a second. And the next thing out of his mouth was, you know, that's actually a good question.

DUFFIN: So they start looking into it, and they find a Supreme Court case from 2012. In that particular case, the court was looking at whether the government needed a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to your car.

FOUNTAIN: Yeah. The question was, is the government trespassing if they do this? Like, if the feds go into your house against your will without a warrant, that is an unreasonable search. So how about your car? And the justices got really worked up over this question. Here's Chief Justice John Roberts grilling the government's lawyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: If you put a GPS device on all of our cars, monitored our movements for a month, you think you're entitled to do that under your theory.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: The justices of this court?

ROBERTS: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Under our theory and under this court's cases, the justices of this court, when driving on public roadways, have no greater expectation...

ROBERTS: Your answer is yes, no problem under the Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Well, equally...

FOUNTAIN: Needless to say, the government lost very badly, 9-zip. The Supreme Court said that attaching a GPS to your car does count as a search, so the government needs to get a warrant before they do that.

DUFFIN: So Matt and Phil are looking at this and thinking, we might just have a case. Drawing a chalk line on your tire to track you is kind of like sticking a GPS on your car.

FOUNTAIN: They find a plaintiff, someone who's gotten 14 tickets, and they decide to sue the city of Saginaw and the parking enforcement officer that Matt calls, quote, "one of the most efficient government employees that has ever existed."

GRONDA: So there is actually three enforcement officers, although the particular lady who is the defendant in our suit, Miss Hoskins, she writes well over 95% of the tickets.

FOUNTAIN: Wait. You mean to tell me that she has the same job as two other people, and she's running circles around them?

GRONDA: Correct. Yeah. If this parking enforcement thing goes south for her, we're going to try to hire her.

FOUNTAIN: (Laughter) We reached out to Sagniaw's lawyer. They did not respond. So Matt and Phil filed their lawsuit. They argue chalking your car is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is an unreasonable search.

DUFFIN: Where it goes from there is a little bit technical. But basically, this week, a federal court weighed in and said this case has merit; let's send it to trial. So arguments over this chalk question will begin soon.

FOUNTAIN: It just seems so small, you know?

GRONDA: But is it really that small? I mean, you're talking nationwide. You know, you're talking tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars in fines that are being imposed on citizens. I mean, really, is it that small?

FOUNTAIN: I mean, I guess it washes off.

GRONDA: Yeah. I mean, the chalk itself, yes.

FOUNTAIN: To be clear, if Matt wins, he wants to force little towns and cities across the country to refund all those millions of dollars in parking tickets and, he hopes, pay him. That's what he stands to gain.

DUFFIN: But he also says this is not a frivolous lawsuit. This is about privacy and which government actions we're protected against.

GRONDA: If you imagine that protection like a bubble around someone, that's your safe zone. And if the government wants to get in that bubble, they have to have a warrant. How big that bubble is is always changing. That bubble can shrink. That bubble can expand. And where the excitement is in these kind of cases is right on the edge of the bubble. Is the bubble going to go out in this case, or is it going to retract in this case and the Fourth Amendment protections are going to become smaller?

FOUNTAIN: Or I guess the third option is traffic enforcement officers just will chalk around the tire and not on a tire.

GRONDA: So be it. So be it. At least they're within the bounds of the law.

DUFFIN: Matt says he cannot believe how much people seem to care about parking. Of all the cases he's done, and he's done things about much bigger issues, none of them have come close to getting this much attention.

GRONDA: Now with this, with tire chalking, it's something that almost everyone has had some sort of experience with. It's the only thing I could - I can, you know, pardon the pun, but, you know, kind of chalk all the interest up to.

FOUNTAIN: Oh, boo.

GRONDA: (Laughter) Sorry. I had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS-MAXIME BOUTAULT AND FREDERIC VITANI'S "JAMES' BOOGALOO")

FOUNTAIN: Do you have any story ideas for us? Email us, planetmoney@npr.org. We cannot settle your traffic disputes.

DUFFIN: If you enjoyed listening to this episode, maybe you have a friend who might also enjoy it. Hit that little share button. Send it to them. It's a free present.

FOUNTAIN: Today's show was produced by Sally Helm and Rachel Cohn. Our editor is Bryant Urstadt. And our supervising producer is Alex Goldmark.

Plug time. Karen, you just worked on an amazing two-part series for the podcast Rough Translation. Give us a little preview.

DUFFIN: It is about a photographer in Iraq who gets kidnapped by ISIS. We followed it for four years, have all kinds of crazy on-the-ground tape.

FOUNTAIN: Part 2 came out this week. Can't wait to listen. The podcast is called Rough Translation. I'm Nick Fountain.

DUFFIN: I'm Karen Duffin. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRANCOIS-MAXIME BOUTAULT AND FREDERIC VITANI'S "JAMES' BOOGALOO")

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