When I went to Madison for law school, it was hard for me to get used to the sheer number of people there. Traffic was crazy, and so was parking. I was used to parking on the street in front of an establishment or in a nearby parking lot – for free. In Madison, however, parking spots are hard to come by and they all cost money.
I vividly remember driving to a buddy’s apartment to study and feeling lucky to find a parking spot right in front of his building. After feeding the meter, I went inside and we crammed for an upcoming final. We studied for a couple of hours and then decided to go grab some dinner. As I was getting into my car, I noticed a big white scuff mark on the tire. My friend explained that meter maids drive around and chalk people’s tires, and if they come back later after the parking time limit had run and the chalk mark was still there, they would issue a parking ticket.
Apparently, chalking tires is a common practice of parking enforcement officers across the country. While I thought it was an effective and efficient way to enforce parking laws that was a minor inconvenience in my life, some drivers feel far more aggrieved.
Alison Taylor, of Saginaw, Michigan, sued her hometown over the chalking of her tires. According to her lawsuit, Taylor received 14 parking tickets in three years, all written by the same officer, “the most prolific issuer of parking tickets” for the city of Saginaw. Her attorneys, Matthew Gronda and Philip Ellison, estimate that the city’s revenue from parking tickets could add up to $200,000 a year, one $15 or $20 ticket at a time.
Taylor claimed that chalking her tires violated her Constitutional rights, as unreasonable searches and seizures are banned by the Fourth Amendment. Gronda and Ellison’s argument was based on a 2012 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Jones. In that case, police secretly attached a GPS tracker to Antoine Jones’ car without obtaining a valid warrant, and the data obtained from it was used to convict him. The court unanimously ruled that Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the police physically placed a device on his “private property, for the purpose of obtaining information.” Because they did so without a warrant, this constituted a “government trespass” and an unconstitutional search.
In 2017, the trial court that heard her suit ruled in favor of Saginaw, holding that while chalking constituted a “search,” it was not an unreasonable one. In making the ruling, the judge explained that the police have the authority to enforce parking regulations, even to tow cars, as an exercise of “community caretaking.”
So Taylor appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which governs Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Here the judges decided that the enforcement of a two-hour parking limit was not a matter of public safety, but rather a simple way to raise revenue. In addition, they held that there was no probable cause to justify the search, since the chalk marks are made on cars that, at that time, are still legally parked.
Thankfully, the judges have a sense of humor, as their decision reads, “because we chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function,” they ruled in favor of Taylor.
In light of the ruling, Saginaw officials were asked about their plans for all the parked cars. They purportedly responded that they aren’t going anywhere.