Court: Chalked tires violate rights of Michigan woman with 14 parking tickets

In case you've forgotten the particulars of the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights from your high-school civics class, here's a quick refresher:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

In other words, the ability of the government to invade your space is limited. It's a civics lesson Alison Taylor and her lawyer hadn't forgotten. Taylor, who had sued Saginaw, Mich., over 14 parking tickets she had racked up, has won a major court decision that says the city defaced the Fourth Amendment with a parking enforcement officer's modest piece of tire chalk.

Taylor argued that using the chalk to mark her tires constituted an unreasonable search without a warrant. Saginaw said the act of chalking Taylor's car was an exception to the Fourth Amendment.

But a three-judge panel of a federal appeals court just ruled unanimously that Taylor's novel argument was right, and Saginaw is wrong.

“For nearly as long as automobiles have parked along city streets, municipalities have found ways to enforce parking regulations without implicating the Fourth Amendment,” Judge Richard Griffin said in the opinion handed down Wednesday. “Thus, tire chalking is not necessary to meet the ordinary needs of law enforcement, let alone the extraordinary."

Chalking a tire is an old-fashioned technique used by many municipalities for checking to see if a car has overstayed its time in a parking spot. There are other ways to do this — installing parking meters or automated pay machines, for example. In Saginaw's case, parking enforcer Tabitha Hoskins would sometimes take notes, which did not entail touching a motorist's personal property, or chalk the tires, which obviously did.

“The city has significant interests that are furthered by enforcing its parking ordinances through the use of chalk, and these interests greatly outweigh the minimal intrusion that a chalk mark creates,” Saginaw argued. But the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's ruling that had favored Saginaw and sent the case back down to U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington.

Taylor's attorney, Philip Ellison, plans to leverage the ruling in her lawsuit into a class action involving other drivers ticketed in Saginaw.

"We have all the records of every tire she [Hoskins] chalked,” Ellison said.

The appeals court's ruling has broader implications for parking scofflaws throughout the Midwest and Mid-South, as it sets precedent for the whole 6th Circuit, comprising Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I haven't gotten many parking tickets,” said Judge Joan Larsen in a light moment during oral arguments. “Only because I have a reserved parking spot.”

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