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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Chalking tires to monitor parking is unconstitutional, appeals court rules

A Sixth Circuit panel found the chalking of tires by city officials as a method of tracking vehicles to issue parking tickets is not an administrative search allowed under the Fourth Amendment.

CINCINNATI (CN) — The Sixth Circuit ruled Wednesday that a Michigan city's policy of chalking the tires of parked cars is not covered by the Fourth Amendment's administrative search exception.

Saginaw's tire-chalking practice – which involves marking the tires of a car to determine how long it stays in the same parking spot – has been debated at the Cincinnati-based appeals court on two separate occasions, the most recent of which took place last month.

Each set of arguments has ended with an unfavorable result for the city, who was sued by Alison Taylor, a Saginaw resident with more than a dozen parking tickets to her name.

In April 2019, an appeals panel ruled the practice constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

That decision overturned the ruling of U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington, who had dismissed the case based on the so-called community caretaking exception, which relates to public safety.

The case was remanded to the district court to allow for further analysis, and after discovery was conducted, Ludington once again granted the city's motion for summary judgment.

Ludington, a George W. Bush appointee, applied the Fourth Amendment's administrative search exception on the second go-round, and ruled the searches fell within the scope of the city's police powers.

Taylor appealed, and the case returned to the Sixth Circuit in front of a different panel of judges for July's arguments.

Wednesday's ruling reiterated that because chalking tires occurs in the absence of a warrant, it is a "presumptively unreasonable" search under the Fourth Amendment, and the government is therefore required to establish the application of an exception.

The city argued its policy falls within the "closely regulated industries" category of administrative searches, but the panel disagreed.

"Unlike the closely regulated industries of liquor sales, firearm dealing, mining, or automobile junkyards, municipal parking plainly does not 'pose a clear and significant risk to the public welfare,'" U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Griffin wrote. "That automobiles are regulated and involved in parking is inconsequential because the exception applies to industries, not objects." (Emphasis in original.)

Griffin, a George W. Bush appointee, also rejected the city's argument that chalking tires serves a "special need" beyond normal law enforcement, an exception that has been applied to DUI and immigration checkpoints.

"We see no special need here...And common-sense commands this conclusion; for nearly as long as automobiles have parked along city streets, municipalities have found ways to enforce parking regulations without implicating the Fourth Amendment," the ruling states.

The panel found Ludington erred in his interpretation of Taylor's suit against the city by misconstruing the case as a "broad challenge" to Saginaw's cumulative effort to curb parking violations, instead of a targeted effort to stop warrantless searches.

Importantly, the panel's ruling expressed no opinion on whether other exceptions to the Fourth Amendment could be applied to render the policy constitutional because, according to Griffin, "we are 'a court of review, not first view.'"

Tabitha Hoskins, the city employee who cited Taylor for parking violations, fared more favorably than her employer before the appeals court, which upheld the lower court's grant of qualified immunity for her. The panel found Hoskins would have been unaware her conduct violated a clearly established constitutional right at the time she chalked Taylor's tire.

U.S. Circuit Judges Joan Larsen and John Nalbandian, both appointees of Donald Trump, also sat on the panel.

Neither party immediately responded to a request for comment.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights, Government

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