‘Chalking’ of Parked Cars Debated in Sixth Circuit

CINCINNATI (CN) – A Michigan city’s practice of “chalking” car tires to enforce parking regulations was challenged in the Sixth Circuit on Tuesday, after a resident claimed the system is a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights akin to GPS monitoring.

Alison Taylor sued the city of Saginaw and parking enforcement official Tabitha Hoskins in 2017 after she received 14 parking tickets over a period of several years.

Taylor’s federal lawsuit called Hoskins “the most prolific issuer of parking tickets” in the city, and said she used chalk to mark Taylor’s car tires before the citations were issued. The chalk marks are used to determine whether a car has stayed in the same parking spot beyond its allowed time limit.

The suit claimed such a practice constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, but U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington disagreed last year.

While Judge Ludington agreed with Taylor that the system constitutes a trespass, he would not go so far as to rule that her constitutional rights had been violated.

Ludington sided with the city and ruled that the “community caretaking” exception to the Fourth Amendment applies in this case.

“Active enforcement of parking regulations,” he wrote, “benefits the public by ensuring convenient access to public parking. If the police have the authority to impound a vehicle while enforcing parking regulations, surely they have the authority to chalk a vehicle’s tire while enforcing parking regulations.”

Attorney Philip Ellison argued Tuesday on behalf of Taylor in the Sixth Circuit, and told the panel his client’s case falls squarely under the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision United States v. Jones.

In Jones, the nation’s high court determined that the placement of a GPS device on a criminal suspect’s vehicle constitutes a warrantless search and a trespass of the suspect’s property rights.

Ellison argued there is no difference between a GPS monitor and a chalk mark on a tire.

“It’s the same thing,” he said, “[because it shows] where the vehicle is parked and where it’s going.”

He told the panel that the chalking practice is “done for the purpose of gathering information,” which aligns it with the ruling in Jones.

The attorney admitted he was “asking for a landslide-like shift” in Fourth Amendment law, but stressed that the government carries the burden of providing proof that a clearly defined exception allows for the search.

Brett Meyer, attorney for the city of Saginaw and Hoskins, told the panel that Ellison “read[s] too much into Jones,” and reminded the court that the issue in that case was whether a search had occurred.

U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge interrupted, and asked the attorney whether a search occurred in the present case.

“Yes,” Meyer responded.

“I appreciate the straightforward answer,” Kethledge said.

But while Meyer admitted a search had occurred, he told Kethledge and the rest of the panel that “the primary argument is that the search is reasonable.”

Judge Kethledge persisted, asking the attorney how the court could avoid applying the standard found in Jones.

“The exception we are pointing to here is the community caretaking exception,” Meyer said.

U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald was not convinced, and asked about the public safety aspect of the exception.

“The issue is public convenience,” Meyer responded.

He went on to say that the occupation of public parking spots by vehicles for extended periods of time is an inconvenience for the public at large, and allows for the application of the community caretaking exception.

Judge Kethledge interrupted, and expressed his “candid” opinion that he was unaware of any cases involving government searches of vehicles to gain information in which the caretaking exception was applied.

He noted the majority of cases involving that exception deal with vehicle accidents or arrests, and that, “in those cases, the government is kind of forced to do a search” and is granted leeway by the courts.

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Damon Keith rounded out the panel, and joined via telephone.

It is unclear when the court will issue its decision in the case.

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