Denver boot: Scofflaw secrets about how to beat it

A recent police blotter item from YourHub notes that a vehicle booted for outstanding parking tickets in northwest Denver was "mysteriously gone" when an enforcement officer returned to the area.

Call out the hounds, Sherlock. How will this baffling feat of legerdemain ever be solved?

Fact is, there's nothing mysterious about the numerous methods available to defeat the infamous Denver Boot, most of which involve tools one can find in the average handyman's trunk or garage. And the job is getting easier as more cities turn to lighter, simpler immobilization equipment; chances are that strange jaw of metal clamped on your wheel isn't a true Denver Boot at all.

The original Denver Boot was invented by a Manual High shop teacher named Frank Marugg in 1953. Marugg played violin for the Denver symphony and liked to tinker in his workshop; at the request of a cop friend, Marugg devised a contraption to secure a wheel of a scofflaw's car so he couldn't drive away until his parking fines got paid.

The boot has since spread from city to city, accompanied by a plague of curses from motorists deprived of their rides. But tough as the device might seem, from its hardened padlock to its ungainly jaws to its unshatterable hubcap cover, the boot has always been more fallible than its victims might suspect.

"The boots are all defeatable," says Liz Wolfson, CFO of Clancy Systems International, the local company that acquired the rights to Marugg's patent in 1986 and now markets Denver Boots to fit all sizes of SUVs to dozens of city agencies. "But if you tamper with a boot, then you're damaging city property, and that could turn some parking violations into a criminal matter."

Wolfson estimates that 98 percent of the people who get their cars booted end up paying the fines (plus those lovely extra fees for getting the boot removed). But the others? "Maybe they're angry, maybe they don't have the money," she says. "They decide they're going to hammer this thing off or something."

Plenty of helpful advice is available online on how to remove a boot. The most common method has to do with deflating the tire, creating some wiggle room with the clamping mechanism, then driving forward or back to "pop" the boot off. But that may only work if the boot was sloppily installed to begin with. Wolfson notes that Clancy's product is supposed to clamp to the wheel rim, so deflation wouldn't make much impact.

Other wiseacres suggest a chisel to the weak points in the mechanism -- a San Francisco Bay Guardian piece from the early 1990s focus on the jaw-to-frame pins and the swivel-pin attached to the hubcap plate. But now we're talking about escalating the war with the parking folks, adding destruction of city property to the rest of your petty crimes.

It's entirely likely that the escape artist in northwest Denver didn't go to nearly that much trouble. Clancy Systems is no longer the supplier in these parts -- yes, that's right, the City of Denver uses an ersatz Denver Boot. And Wolfson has a dim view of some of her company's competitors. Some of the so-called Denver Boots you see around town don't even have a hubcap cover.

Meaning that the scofflaw has access to the lugnuts. Just change the tire, and you're on your way again. You might still have to figure out how to get the boot off the wheel rim without damaging either one, but now you have plenty of time to work on it.

"The simpler it is, the easier it is to not pay your tickets," Wolfson says.

The whole point of Marugg's boot was to encourage drivers to take the path of least resistance, which usually involved forking over cash. The boot, Wolfson acknowledges, is "a scarlet letter on the car."

But some people regard that as a challenge. Any city using the device, flimsy or not, should be prepared to see a few of them simply vanish.

"There's a certain satisfaction in saying that you're smarter than the guy who booted your car," Wolfson sighs.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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