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It's a 4th Amendment Violation When Parking Officers Chalk Your Tires
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Alison Taylor grew weary of her parking tickets.  Between 2014 and 2017, Ms. Taylor received 15 parking tickets in Saginaw, Michigan.  Each ticket had a time noted as to when the officer had chalked her tire, a process Saginaw officers used for parking enforcement.  The officers would walk along or ride along the parked cars and place a mark on the tires of the parked cars.  They would then rotate back on their shift after the 2-3 hours permitted for parking in those spots and issue tickets. The tickets result in a $15 fine. 

 

Ms. Taylor brought suit in federal district court to challenge the tickets on the basis of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, alleging that the chalking of her tires was an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. Ms. Taylor also sued Officer Tabitha Hoskins, the Saginaw police officer responsible for the tickets, in her individual capacity.  The city of Saginaw moved to dismiss the case, and the federal district court granted the city's motion.  Ms. Taylor appealed.

 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.  Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 2019 WL 1757953, _____ F.3d _____ (6th Cir. 2019).   On appeal, the court addressed the following issue:  whether a Fourth Amendment violation occurred through the officer's practice of chalking the tires.  To address the issue, the court raised two questions:

 

  1. whether the alleged government conduct constitutes a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; 
  2. whether the search was reasonable.

 

In answering the questions, the court discussed whether Ms. Taylor had a reasonable expectation of privacy in her parked vehicle. In property-based questions of privacy, the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent decision, U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), is the controlling precedent. Under Jones, a case involving the placement of a GPS device on a vehicle, the court focused on whether the action taken that involves an intrusion onto property is an intrusion that is designed to get information. The court found that there was a trespass of Ms. Talyor's property -- the chalking of the tire and the chalking was done to get information.  

 

Once there was a search, the question becomes whether the search was reasonable or whether it fell into one of the exceptions for warrantless searches. While there is a reduced expectation of privacy for a vehicle in a public place, there must still be some basis for the search, i.,e., probable cause to believe that there was some illegal conduct.  Inasmuch as the enforcement process was to chalk the tires on all the parked cars and simply do rounds in order to ticket the vehicles, the officer, when chalking the tires, did not have a reasonable basis for believing that any of the cars were in violation of the Saginaw parking rules. 

 

The City of Saginaw argued that its actions fell under the "community caretaker" exception under the Fourth Amendment.  Under this exception, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a city may search an abandoned vehicle for purposes of obtaining information on the owner and removing any dangerous items (such as a gun). Cady v. Dombrowski, 413 U.S. 433 (1973).  The parked cars presented no such danger because there was no proof that the cars were abandoned. 

 

The court acknowledged that Saginaw had a legitimate interest in ensuring orderly parking in the city.  However, the methods it used (rotational observations and chalking) must still be within the bounds of the Fourth Amendment. The decision of the lower court was reversed, and, for now, at least in the Sixth Circuit (Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee), the rotational use of chalk on tires to enforce parking time limits is unconstitutional.  Ms. Taylor's lawyer will now pursue a class action against the city for refunds to those who received parking tickets using this methodology of enforcement.  The city has collected about $200,000 per year from parking enforcement. 

 

DISCUSSION STARTERS

 

  • Explain the chalking the tire process.
  • Run through the analysis of how a mark on a tire is an unreasonable search and seizure.