Parking violators rejoice—Court of Appeals rules that chalking tires is unconstitutional

Parked VW Van

Chalk one up for the little guy. On second thought, put the chalk away. If you’re wearing a badge, you might be breaking the law.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit has unanimously ruled that chalking tires is a violation of the Fourth Amendment because it is a form of trespass and requires a warrant. The ruling is bad news for law enforcement officers in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee who use chalk to mark the tires of cars to enforce time limits on parking. That’s exactly what Alison Taylor claims a Saginaw, Michigan, police officer has been doing for three years while issuing her 15 parking tickets.

According to the Associated Press and National Public Radio, Taylor alleges Officer Tabitha Hoskins issued every one of her fines after first chalking a tire and then returning to see if Taylor’s car had moved. Taylor sued, claiming that the practice constitutes “unreasonable search and seizure” and is therefore unconstitutional. The court agreed.

Philip Ellison, Taylor’s attorney, wrote in a court filing: “Trespassing upon a privately-owned vehicle parked on a public street to place a chalk mark to begin gathering information to ultimately impose a government sanction is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.”

lamborghini hurrican parking
Dhiva Krishna

To determine if a violation occurred, the court had to first decide if the actions in question counted as a search and, if so, determine if that search was reasonable. The court ruled that chalking is indeed a search because government officials physically trespass upon a constitutionally protected area to obtain information. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a warrant is required before placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle, and the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the same is true by covertly chalking a tire in order to monitor a car’s movements.

The court wrote that by chalking, the city of Saginaw illegally searches vehicles “that are parked legally, without probable cause, or even so much as ‘individualized suspicion of wrongdoing’—the touchstone of the reasonableness standard.” The case will now head back to U.S. District Court in Bay City, Michigan.

Taylor’s attorney says his client doesn’t think anyone deserves free parking, and the lawsuit is about principle. “The process (that) Saginaw selected is unconstitutional,” Ellison says.

Taylor is happy that she helped “change the law,” but any celebration will likely be short-lived. While the method of physically chalking a tire may end, the practice likely won’t. Officers can simply take a photo, effectively chalking the car without touching it.

In the words of Homer Simpson: “D’oh!”