Appeals court rules using chalk on tires for parking enforcement violates Constitution

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 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.

Saginaw's city manager didn't immediately reply to a message seeking comment.

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 said. "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.

In Colorado, cities like Denver, Longmont and Boulder still use chalk in some situations.

“It’s a pretty big, substantial ruling,” said Leo Pelle, the parking enforcement supervisor in Boulder.

However, parking enforcement officers say they use chalk less often because they now have license plate recognition technology.

In Boulder, officers can use license plate readers. Their vehicles have cameras that can take photos of the license plates and tires of parked vehicles as they drive by. When officers drive back by later, the system knows which cars have been parked for too long.

“That’s kind of the way of the future,” Pelle said.

Officers in Boulder have another digital option. It’s an app on their phone that allows them to enter information and take photos of cars as they walk down the street. Neither option requires any physical contact with a vehicle.

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