Appeals Court: Chalking Tires For Parking Enforcement Violates The Fourth Amendment

from the extra-4th-with-bonus-pun-topping dept

A rather surprising conclusion has been reached by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals: a common parking enforcement tool of the trade may be unconstitutional.

Not everyone who's been ticketed multiple times for parking violations has made a federal case of it. Alison Taylor did, though, arguing that Saginaw, Michigan's practice of "chalking" tires was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights. Taylor had been ticketed fifteen times when she decided to sue. The court sides with her, finding that marking tires to determine whether a vehicle has been parked too long constitutes not just a search, but an unreasonable one, under the Fourth Amendment.

The Appeals Court opinion [PDF] leads off with an almost unforgivable pun:

Parking enforcement officers return to the car after the posted time for parking has passed, and if the chalk marks are still there—a sign that the vehicle has not moved—the officer issues a citation. Alison Taylor, a frequent recipient of parking tickets, sued the City and its parking enforcement officer Tabitha Hoskins, alleging that chalking violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search. The City moved to dismiss the action. The district court granted the City’s motion, finding that, while chalking may have constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment, the search was reasonable. Because we chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function, we REVERSE.

The route the court takes to reach this conclusion is circuitous and somewhat amusing, especially if one imagines Saginaw city reps watching with increasing dismay as their "easy win" assumptions are dismantled paragraph by paragraph.

The Appeals Court references the Supreme Court's Jones decision to arrive at its determination that chalking tires = search. In that decision, the Supreme Court punted on the issue of tracking devices as searches, opting instead to find the warrantless placement of the device on someone's car as an intrusion in and of itself, a "trespass" onto someone's private property -- in this case, a car.

In recent years, however, the Supreme Court revisited the seldom used “property-based” approach to the Fourth Amendment search inquiry in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012). Under Jones, when governmental invasions are accompanied by physical intrusions, a search occurs when the government: (1) trespasses upon a constitutionally protected area, (2) to obtain information. Id. at 404–405.

The car may be parked on a public street when chalking occurs, but the placement of chalk on the private property of a citizen is a "trespass" with the intent of gathering information (how long the car has been parked in a certain spot).

[O]nce we determine the government has trespassed upon a constitutionally protected area, we must then determine whether the trespass was “conjoined with . . . an attempt to find something or to obtain information.” Id. at 408 n.5. Here, it was. Neither party disputes that the City uses the chalk marks for the purpose of identifying vehicles that have been parked in the same location for a certain period of time. That information is then used by the City to issue citations. As the district court aptly noted, “[d]espite the low-tech nature of the investigative technique . . . , the chalk marks clearly provided information to Hoskins.” This practice amounts to an attempt to obtain information under Jones.

That's not the end of the analysis. Warrantless searches are permitted if the search is reasonable. The city claimed the chalking/search was reasonable because of a reduced expectation of privacy when parked on a public street. Alternatively, it argued the search was reasonable under the community caretaking exception.

The reduced expectation of privacy exception argument fails because a car legally parked on a public street -- absent any other indicators of criminal activity -- cannot generate the probable cause needed to justify a warrantless chalking. At the point the tire is marked, no law has been broken, nor is there any justifiable suspicion the driver intends to violate the law by parking for longer than is allowed.

As for the community caretaking function, the Appeals Court finds this argument just as weak. The caretaking function is not supposed to be investigatory or carried out with the intent of collecting evidence. Marking a tire gives the government information it can use later to issue parking tickets. This does nothing to make the community safer.

The City fails to carry its burden of establishing that the community caretaker exception applies in this instance. First, on these facts, the City fails to demonstrate how this search bears a relation to public safety. The City does not show that the location or length of time that Taylor’s vehicle was parked created the type of “hazard” or traffic impediment amounting to a public safety concern. Nor does the City demonstrate that delaying a search would result in “injury or ongoing harm to the community.” Washington, 573 F.3d at 289. To the contrary, at the time of the search, Taylor’s vehicle was lawfully parked in a proper parking location, imposing no safety risk whatsoever. Because the purpose of chalking is to raise revenue, and not to mitigate public hazard, the City was not acting in its “role as [a] community caretaker[.]”

The finding is narrow, but it's enough to steer the city of Saginaw to other methods of parking enforcement -- which unfortunately could see an increase in the use of automated license plate readers or surveillance cameras to accomplish the same ends.

The City does not demonstrate, in law or logic, that the need to deter drivers from exceeding the time permitted for parking—before they have even done so—is sufficient to justify a warrantless search under the community caretaker rationale. This is not to say that this exception can never apply to the warrantless search of a lawfully parked vehicle. Nor does our holding suggest that no other exceptions to the warrant requirement might apply in this case. However, on these facts and on the arguments the City proffers, the City fails to meet its burden in establishing an exception to the warrant requirement.

This doesn't mean the government won't ultimately secure a win for tire chalking. What it does mean is the case heads back down a level for more exploration of the issue. This is a ruling on an appealed motion to dismiss by the city. All this means for Alison Taylor is her case isn't dead yet. But if this holds up, a lot of cities using similar enforcement methods are going to have to try a different approach. Unfortunately for those in the Sixth Circuit's jurisdiction, this may mean more reliance on ALPRs and other tech that has its own unanswered privacy-related questions.

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Filed Under: 4th amendment, 6th circuit, chalking tires, parking, parking enforcement


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  1. icon
    btr1701 (profile), 25 Apr 2019 @ 12:39pm

    Re: Seriously

    And how is automated license plate reading not a "search" by this definition?

    Did you bother to read the article or the opinion? Because that would have answered your question.

    Chalking physically trespasses onto private property. Visually reading a license plate does not.


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