Some cities stop chalking tires after court rules practice unconstitutional in 4 states

photo by: Associated Press

In a photo from April 22, 2019, Savannah Peterson of the Alpena Downtown Development Authority checks parked cars in Alpena, Mich. A federal court said Michigan cities can't mark tires as a way to enforce parking restrictions. The court, ruling in a case from Saginaw, said it violates the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches. Alpena is following the decision by not marking tires. (Steve Schulwitz/The Alpena News via AP)

DETROIT — Marking tires to enforce parking rules is like entering property without a search warrant, a federal court said Monday as it declared the practice unconstitutional in Michigan and three other states.

Alison Taylor had received more than a dozen $15 tickets for exceeding the two-hour parking limit in Saginaw. The city marks tires with chalk to keep track of how long a vehicle is parked. Her lawyer argued that a parking patrol officer violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed.

The purpose of marking tires was to “raise revenue,” not to protect the public against a safety risk, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

“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 under the community caretaker rationale,” the court said.

The decision sets a new standard for Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the states covered by the 6th Circuit. The court overturned an opinion by U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington, who had called the legal theory “unorthodox” and dismissed the case in favor of Saginaw.

On Tuesday, communities around Michigan expressed surprise but abandoned the practice following the ruling.

“It’s a fairly common practice, especially in smaller communities” without parking meters, said Chris Johnson, a lawyer with the Michigan Municipal League, a statewide group that represents local governments.

“I was kind of shocked to see a decision like that,” said Johnson, a former Northville mayor. “Chalking a tire is a very unobtrusive (step) to determine if a car has moved in the last three hours. If they were breaking into a car and checking mileage — that’s a whole different story.”

Taylor’s attorney, Philip Ellison, began researching the issue when another lawyer complained that his tire was marked while he sat in his car. It’s apparently a common practice in downtown Saginaw, where there are no meters to enforce time limits.

“A good portion of my practice is representing the everyday person,” Ellison said.

He argued that marking tires was similar to police secretly putting a GPS device on a vehicle without a proper warrant, which was the subject of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

“We don’t think everyone deserves free parking,” Ellison told The Associated Press. “But the process Saginaw selected is unconstitutional. … I’m very glad the three judges who got this case took it seriously. It affects so many people.”

The case will return to federal court in Bay City. Ellison wants Ludington to certify the lawsuit as a class-action, with refunds for people who got tickets. He said Saginaw has been collecting up to $200,000 a year with parking tickets from tire marking.

Saginaw City Manager Tim Morales declined to comment.

The city could ask the full appeals court to reopen the case or it could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuesday in Alpena, where parking is checked by the Downtown Development Authority, an employee was armed with a clipboard but nothing to mark tires.

“We will continue taking license plate numbers down, which has always been common practice, and check them that way,” executive director Anne Gentry told The Alpena News .

Bay City, another city that marks tires, stopped writing downtown parking tickets Tuesday following the court decision. Parking enforcement typically brings in $25,000 a year, said Suzanne Maxwell of the Downtown Development Authority.

Johnson said communities without parking meters might need to chalk the ground instead of a tire or come up with another way to keep track of how long a car is parked.

“There are quite a few questions coming in now,” he told The Associated Press.

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