It’s not often that a dispute over parking tickets ends up in federal court. But that’s exactly what happened this week in Taylor v. City of Saginaw – a case that has already drawn the attention of the national media.
Taylor involved a challenge to “a common parking enforcement practice known as ‘chalking,’ whereby City parking enforcement officers use chalk to mark the tires of parked vehicles to track how long they have been parked.” This practice can be surprisingly effective (as certain blog authors unfortunately can attest). But it is apparently very effective in Saginaw – according to Judge Donald’s decision, one particular parking enforcement officer managed to chalk (and then ticket) Ms. Taylor fifteen separate times between 2014 and 2017.
Armed with a slew of parking tickets, Ms. Taylor filed suit in federal court, alleging that the City violated the Fourth Amendment by chalking her tires without her consent or a valid warrant. The Sixth Circuit agreed, relying upon the Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), to hold that chalking constitutes an unreasonable trespass upon a constitutionally-protected area (your car).
At first blush, chalking a car’s tires may not seem like the type of “search” typically raising Fourth Amendment concerns. But as Judge Donald explained, Jones signaled a rebirth of “the seldom used ‘property-based’ approach to the Fourth Amendment search inquiry,” which focuses on physical intrusion to one’s property:
Under Jones, when governmental invasions are accompanied by physical intrusions, a search occurs when the government: (1) trespasses upon a constitutionally protected area, (2) to obtain information.
In the Court’s view, chalking satisfied both of these requirements: the officer came into contact with Ms. Taylor’s car, in an attempt to obtain information about her (whether she remained in her parking spot too long).
The Court proceeded to hold that the search was unreasonable because the car was parked legally when chalked, and the officer lacked any reasonable suspicion (let alone probable cause) that a crime had been committed. The Court also specifically rejected the City’s assertion of the “community caretaker” exception, explaining that “the purpose of chalking is to raise revenue, and not to mitigate [a] public hazard.”
Taylor is the latest in a series of interesting Fourth Amendment cases playing out on our public roadways. The Sixth Circuit’s decision relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones, which addressed the constitutionality of electronically monitoring an individual’s location by affixing a GPS device to his car.
And the Supreme Court heard argument yesterday in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, which asks whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist suspected of driving under the influence provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement. Squire Patton Boggs filed an amicus brief in that case (along with the State and Local Legal Center) on behalf of the National Conference of State Legislatures and other organizations that represent the interests of local governments and prosecutors.
UPDATE: The Sixth Circuit issued an amended opinion narrowing the scope of its ruling. See our update here.