Tire Chalking – A Common Parking Enforcement Trick – Ruled Unconstitutional By Federal Appeals Court

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A federal appeals court has ruled unanimously that a common parking enforcement practice violates the Fourth Amendment. Here’s how and why police have been violating the constitutional rights of car owners for decades.  

Have you ever received a ticket for overstaying the parking time in a legal spot? Say, three hours in a two-hour zone? If so, the local traffic enforcement working for the local police likely violated your civil rights. This according to a new unanimous ruling by the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

The recent case revolved around the practice by traffic enforcement groups and police of marking a vehicle’s tires with chalk. The color denotes a time stamp that police then use to determine if a violation occurs in an area where parking is time-limited. Captain Gary Sparger of the West Lafayette Polie Department told WLFITV that he has witnessed and employed this method of traffic enforcement in practice for over 60 years (see video).

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The case over the practice’s constitutionality was brought by Alison Taylor a person no stranger to parking tickets. According to court records, Taylor sued the city of Saginaw, along with parking enforcement officer Tabitha Hoskins. Serial parking violator Taylor alleged that the city’s policy of “chalking” cars in spots with limited parking times violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search. She lost her case initially but took it to the federal appeals court. That appeals court, which covers the states of Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky agreed with Taylor that the practice of “chalking” does indeed violate a citizen’s right to be free from unreasonable search. Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald wrote the brief for the three-judge appeals court and found a way to insert a cute pun. She wrote, “Because we chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function, we REVERSE.”

Judge Bernice Bouie Donald outlined The Fourth Amendment in her writing saying that it “protects the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ She also added, “The basic purpose of this Amendment, as recognized in countless decisions of [the Supreme]Court, is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.”

The term “search” has a specific but broad legal definition. The prior court rulings did not argue that the practice of placing chalk on a citizen’s tire to track their time and place wasn’t qualified as a search. All parties were in agreement that this practice does constitute a search. However, the initial ruling agreed with the city that the search was legally allowable because “(1) there is a lesser expectation of privacy in automobiles, and (2) the search was subject to the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement.” The appeals court overruled that opinion.

This ruling leaned heavily on another ruling involving searches related to automobiles. In The United States vs. Jones, the Supreme Court of The United States (SCOTUS) ruled that the government violated an alleged drug dealer’s civil rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment, by affixing a GPS tracking device to his vehicle. The case was notable because it had a 5-4 split. However, unlike many 5-4 splits, the majority included Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, often considered conservative justices, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, often considered a liberal-leaning justice.

The Taylor case was not heard by the Supreme Court, but could be later if the losing side, in this case the government, opts to appeal to the SCOTUS.

You can read the full text of the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in the Taylor case here.


Top of page image courtesy of myparkingsign.com.