Use the Fourth

Sixth Circuit Court rules chalking tires for parking is unconstitutional.  Eugene says it was moving on anyway.

Every day a ritual occurs at the Eugene Weekly office and wherever else two-hour parking limits exist. Someone peers outside to see whether a long yellow line has appeared on their car’s tire, an indication that city parking enforcement officers have marked you.

If you see that bright yellow line (or a small tick, if it’s a devious officer), you have two hours to move your car around the block or face a $16 fine.

It’s a ritual that may change due to a recent court ruling.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District ruled April 22 that chalking tires was a violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search. The argument can be replicated throughout the U.S., say lawyers who filed the lawsuit against the city of Saginaw, Michigan.

Don’t get too eager to sue the city of Eugene, though, because it says it’s moving on from chalking.

The court case started when co-counsel Brett Meyer, sitting outside the courthouse in Saginaw, watched as parking enforcement officer Tabitha Hoskins, who was named in the complaint, marked parked cars’ tires, says Phillip Ellison, the case’s other co-counsel.

Meyer wondered if chalking tires could be considered a lawful search. After the two lawyers did some research, they thought it could be used as a test case — in other words, set precedent — to see whether chalking was a Fourth Amendment violation, Ellison says.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, and requires warrants to be issued on probable cause, issued by a judge.

Ellison says he took to Facebook to ask if anyone had received parking tickets. Alison Taylor, a close friend of his wife, connected with Ellison. Taylor racked up 14 tickets in three years, priced at $15 each. (Full disclosure: As of press time, I’ve received six tickets in one year).

So Taylor sued the city of Saginaw.

In the Sixth Circuit ruling, the court says chalking is a search of a car because it’s trespassing to learn how long the car has been parked.

Since it’s a search according to the Fourth Amendment, chalking doesn’t fall under two exceptions to requiring a warrant. The city has no probable cause or need “to mitigate a public hazard” because the city is using parking tickets to raise revenue, according to the court documents.

Lauren Regan, executive director at Eugene-based Civil Liberties Defense Center, says the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply in cases like thermal imaging or dog sniffing because courts have ruled in those cases that, in public, privacy doesn’t exist.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling is an attempt to establish stronger boundaries of what can be considered a search. Whenever the city draws a chalk line across your car’s tire, it’s a violation of your constitutional rights, the ruling says. Likewise, Regan adds, the police can’t mark a house because a drug dealer might live there.

Ellison says the case wasn’t about declaring war on parking. It wasn’t about free parking. The idea of keeping government off private property fueled the case.

The city of Eugene has been planning to change how it enforces parking by relying less on chalk, but not because of the Sixth Circuit’s decision. So, for now, as long as you’re in a timed parking spot, assume the city is watching you.

Where the city’s parking monitoring system is already in action, it uses infrared pictures of the license plate of the car that’s parked. Then the parking enforcement officer, comparing car’s license plate to the photo, decides whether the car has been parked too long and whether to issue a ticket, says Lindsay Selser, spokesperson for city of Eugene’s Planning and Development Department.

Selser adds that the city uses chalk “to maintain neighborhood livability” but plans to transition into using only the license plate recognition system.

“Staff have been working on the logistics of this change over the past 18 months and will likely complete the transition later this year,” Selser says. “Eugene Parking Services will expand their current license plate recognition system for enforcing use throughout the city. This technology has been in place in Eugene since 2010.”

She adds that the safety of the parking services officers is a driving concern.

“It will allow us to deliver more service to meet the needs of the neighborhoods to ensure parked vehicles follow the posted time limits,” she says.

Since the city is still exploring options, Selser doesn’t know how much the program will cost.

Regan at CLDC says cities use red-light cameras, which capture license plates, so courts would probably defend a city’s use of license plate recognition systems. City officials also aren’t touching your property, as is the case with chalking.

The Sixth Circuit Court’s jurisdiction covers Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Ellison says its judges’ ideologies are middle-of-the-road, on the spectrum from the liberalism of the West Coast’s Ninth Circuit to the conservatism of the Fourth Circuit, which covers Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

So if you’re tired of getting chalked by parking enforcement, you can take it to court and claim your Fourth Amendment was violated, Ellison says.

“A lawyer in Eugene, Oregon, (or) Bangor, Maine, and everything in between can make the same exact arguments that we did,” Ellison says. “That’s why we think this case is going to have some major impact, because the Fourth Amendment applies equally everywhere.”