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Court Says Chalking Tires for Law Enforcement Violates Constitution

Is using chalk on tires for parking enforcement unconstitutional? A federal appeals court ruled Monday that, in fact, it is. It says “chalking” is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Alison Taylor sued the city in 2017 after her car tires were chalked several times by a Saginaw, Michigan to keep track of how long she’d been parking. She said chalking violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches.

But is chalking an unreasonable search? To determine the question one should answer two questions: “is the government’s conduct a form of search” and “whether the search is reasonable”.

Taylor’s lawyer believes that chalking tires is a form of gathering information. “Trespassing upon a privately-owned vehicle parked on a public street to place a chalk mark to begin gathering information to ultimately impose a government sanction is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment,” Taylor’s lawyer, Philip Ellison, wrote in a court filing. According to him, chalking tires is like police secretly putting a GPS device on a vehicle without a proper warrant.

On the other hand, the city of Saginaw argued that the search was reasonable because the public enforcement officers have the right to intervene if public safety is at stake. The city also cited “reduced expectation of privacy in an automobile” and “community caretaker expectation” as justifications for the search.

However, the judge did not think so. “The City commences its search on vehicles that are parked legally, without probable cause or even so much as ‘individualized suspicious of wrongdoing’ — the touchstone of the reasonableness standard,” Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald wrote in the decision.

“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,” he said.

University expert Orin Kerr says that the issue could be easily resolved if parking officers took photos rather than chalked the tires. “That way parking enforcement can learn the placement of the car [without] physically marking it,” Kerr wrote.

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