Sixth Circuit Rules Against ‘Chalking’ of Parked Cars

CINCINNATI (CN) – A Michigan city’s practice of “chalking” tires to enforce parking regulations is an unreasonable search, a Sixth Circuit panel ruled Monday.

Alison Taylor, who was issued 15 parking citations over a period of three years, sued the city of Saginaw and a parking enforcement officer, Tabitha Hoskins, in 2017.

Taylor claimed the city’s practice of marking the tires of parked cars with chalk constituted a warrantless search and violated her Fourth Amendment rights. The chalk marks are used to determine whether a car has stayed in the same parking spot beyond its allowed time limit.

U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington disagreed, however, and granted the city’s motion to dismiss.

Judge Ludington ruled the search was covered under the community caretaker exception, which allows for warrantless searches “when … government actors [are] performing ‘community-caretaker’ functions rather than traditional law-enforcement functions.”

Taylor appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and the case was argued before a three-judge panel last October.

In an opinion penned by U.S. Circuit Judge Bernice Donald, the Cincinnati-based appeals court reversed the lower court and found tire chalking constitutes an unreasonable search.

“The city fails to carry its burden of establishing that the community caretaker exception applies in this instance. First, on these facts, the city fails to demonstrate how this search bears a relation to public safety,” Donald wrote.

She continued, “The city does not show that the location or length of time that Taylor’s vehicle was parked created the type of ‘hazard’ or traffic impediment amounting to a public safety concern. Nor does the city demonstrate that delaying a search would result in ‘injury or ongoing harm to the community.’”

Saginaw cited the 1996 Sixth Circuit case United States v. Rohrig, which dealt with the warrantless search of a home after neighbors complained of loud music, but Judge Donald was unmoved.

“No similar ongoing public disturbance exists here to justify a warrantless search,” she wrote.

The city also argued the search is reasonable because there is a reduced expectation of privacy in an automobile, and cited the 1974 Supreme Court case Cardwell v. Lewis, in which paint scrapings from a towed vehicle were used to convict a man of murder.

Judge Donald enumerated several distinctions between Cardwell and the current case, and wrote that “most important[ly], the warrantless search in Cardwell was upheld on the basis that it was conducted upon ‘probable cause,’ – an, ‘established’ exception to the warrant requirement … – not simply the vehicle’s reduced expectation of privacy.”

“Here,” Donald concluded, “unlike Cardwell, the city commences its search on vehicles that are parked legally, without probable cause or even so much as ‘individualized suspicion of wrongdoing’ – the touchstone of the reasonableness standard.”

Although the lower court’s decision was overturned and the case will be remanded, Monday’s ruling doesn’t quite signify a total victory for Taylor, as Donald pointed out the opinion does not “suggest that no other exceptions to the warrant requirement might apply in this case.”

Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Damon Keith and U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge joined Donald on the panel.

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