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Sixth Circuit Holds Chalking Car Tires for Parking Enforcement Constitutes a Search Under Fourth Amendment

by Matt Clarke

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that chalking the tires of parked vehicles to gather information about whether they have committed a parking violation constitutes a search for Fourth Amendment purposes and that, at the pleading stage of the current case, neither the motor vehicle nor the community caretaker exception applies to the warrantless search. 

Alison Patricia Taylor received a lot of parking tickets from the City of Saginaw, Michigan.

Between 2014 and 2017, Tabitha Hoskins chalked Taylor’s tires 15 times, and each time, she issued a parking citation that included the date and time the chalk was placed on the tires. Citations cost $15 and upward.

Taylor filed a civil rights action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the city and Hoskins. She argued that chalking her tires without a warrant or her consent violates her Fourth Amendment right to be free of unreasonable searches. The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss after finding that chalking was a search but is reasonable because of the lesser expectation of privacy in a motor vehicle and because it was subject to the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. Taylor appealed.

The Sixth Circuit held that chalking tires for parking enforcement constitutes a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. In doing so, it noted that the issue was lower tech, but very similar to that of United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), in which the Supreme Court held that placing a GPS tracker on a vehicle is a search because the government trespassed upon a constitutionally protected area to obtain information. Under the definition of “trespass” in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, a common-law trespass occurs when an actor causes chattel to come into contact with some other object. Undoubtedly, the defendants “made physical contact with Taylor’s vehicle,” and therefore, chalking is a trespass, concluded the Court. 

There was no dispute that the object of the trespass was to obtain information (about how long the car remained parked in one place). Therefore, chalking constitutes a search, so the next question is: “Was it reasonable?” 

The Court rejected the defendants’ contention that the lesser expectation of privacy enjoyed by a motor vehicle, by itself, renders the search reasonable. The Court explained that the lesser expectation of privacy allows a law enforcement officer to conduct a warrantless search of a vehicle where there is “probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime.… No such probable cause existed here. Thus: the automobile exception is inapplicable.” 

The Court noted that the tires are marked with chalk before any parking violation has occurred or there is any reason to believe that one will occur. To accept the defendants’ argument that this is permissible would dispense with the requirement of probable cause or even an ‘‘individualized suspicion of wrongdoing”—the touchstone of the reasonableness standard, the Court admonished. 

Finally, the Court also rejected defendants’ argument that chalking falls under the community caretaker exception. It observed that the exception only applies to activities “totally divorced from the detection, investigation, or acquisition of evidence relating to the violation of a criminal statute.” Such might be the case if the vehicle impeded traffic, the Court mused.  But “Taylor’s vehicle was lawfully parked in a proper parking location, imposing no safety risk whatsoever. Because the purpose of chalking is to raise revenue, and not to mitigate public hazard, the City was not acting in its role as a community caretaker,” concluded the Court.

“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.” Therefore, the Court decided it would “chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function.” 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s order granting the City’s motion to dismiss, remanding the case for further proceedings. The Court cautioned that its decision “does not mean, however, that chalking violates the Fourth Amendment. Rather, we hold, based on the pleading stage of this litigation, that … the ‘community caretaking’ exception and the motor-vehicle exception—do not apply here.” See: Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 922 F.3d 328 (6th Cir. 2019). 

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