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No Rules In The Parking Lot

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're bringing you a story now from our Planet Money podcast team. Reporter Karen Duffin got a tip about a parking lot where the rules just seemed off, so she looked into it.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: Sarah Johnston's brother was hungry. That's how this whole thing started. She was in Salt Lake driving her brother home from minor surgery. He spots a Jamba Juice and says...

SARAH JOHNSTON: Hey, like, can we pull in there and get some Jamba Juice?

DUFFIN: They get some Jamba Juice, and then her brother sees a Jimmy John's and says, can I get a sandwich, too? And the Jimmy John's is physically in the same parking lot, but it's in the corner of the lot. And it's cordoned off by these big yellow chains and a bunch of signs telling Jimmy John's customers to park inside those chains. But, like, who among us would actually drive that, like, 20 feet?

JOHNSTON: And so we walk a few steps into the Jimmy John's.

DUFFIN: Sandwiches acquired, they head back to their car, where they see a boot on the car tire.

JOHNSTON: My brother starts yelling, like, who put this on here? Where are you?

DUFFIN: There are no cops, no tow truck.

JOHNSTON: But there's a guy starting to get into a black Sedan.

DUFFIN: And this mystery guy tells them I will take the boot off of your car for 75 bucks. But he has no business card, no logos. There's nothing official looking. So Johnston is like, wait, what is happening here?

JOHNSTON: Is this legit?

DUFFIN: I became a little obsessed with this strip mall parking lot. I called the number on the parking signs.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: If you are calling because your vehicle has been immobilized, please press 1.

DUFFIN: The company is called Parking Solutions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUFFIN: They refused to talk to me, so I just start calling government bureaucrats looking for answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning. Public services...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Streets. How can we help you?

DUFFIN: It was surprisingly hard...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So that would not be with us.

DUFFIN: ...To find the right person. But finally, I got to Lorna Vogt.

LORNA VOGT: Hello, this is Lorna.

DUFFIN: She oversees parking in Salt Lake and is very familiar with this parking lot.

VOGT: I had the same experience.

DUFFIN: Really? She tells me the city gives two warnings before we boot. This was not us. So then, is that rogue booter legal? I call the police department, Detective Greg Wilkins. He also knows this parking lot.

GREG WILKINS: Yeah, it happens very often.

DUFFIN: And he tells me yes, this is legal.

WILKINS: With it being private property, it's not something that we have jurisdiction over.

DUFFIN: In a private parking lot, the owner is king. And in this particular lot, you have two kings. Jamba Juice would not talk to me, but Jimmy John's told me that for years, there was peace in the 4th South parking lot - open borders, park wherever you want. But then the Jamba Juice landlord put up those chains, hired that sneaky booter guy. And ever since...

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

DUFFIN: This is Robert Madsen from Jimmy John's. He told me they recently hired someone to stand by those chains all day long just to warn people - by his count, 820 people in six months. He said they've spent nearly $30,000 on this, more than 10% of what that store even earns in a year.

And customers are just caught in the middle, in a space that feels like public property with its painted lines and stop signs. 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.

Karen Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYDROGENII'S "HOW HIGH [REMIX INSTRUMENTAL]") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.