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Court rules that parking officers can no longer chalk tires

(Matt Pitman, KIRO Radio)

Dave Ross’ mom always told him not to make a federal case out of things. Which is pretty mature advice for a child, when you think about it. But it turns out that sometimes doing so can work in your favor. Sorry mom.

Such is the case of a woman who didn’t like her car being chalked by parking officials, then ticketed for parking. Now she has a court ruling in her favor. If applied nationally, it could mean that parking officers have to cease placing chalk marks on car tires in the pursuit of parking tickets.

“It turns out there is a property-based approach to the 4th Amendment which protects us in the Constitution from unreasonable searches,” said former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna. “The property-based approach means that when the government invades your property, when it’s accompanied by a physical intrusion, it’s a search.”

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To be more exact, it’s a search when two conditions are met: when it’s trespassing on a constitutionally protected area (your car is, though on a lower level than, say, your home); and when the intrusion occurs to obtain information.

“So on one hand, it’s a trespass under common law, and on the other hand, constitutionally, it’s considered a search,” McKenna said.

This all stems from a recent case that led all the way to a federal court. Alison Taylor of Saginaw, Michigan was fed up with frequently getting parking tickets. As NPR reports, Taylor specifically targeted one “prolific” chalker for the city — Tabitha Hoskins. Hoskins is reportedly a chalking master, leaving her mark on tire after tire, garnering ticket after ticket. She had marked Taylor’s tires so often it led to at least 15 tickets within a few years.

Taylor took the issue to court. This week, Taylor got a big win. Three judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit unanimously ruled that tire chalking is a type of trespass and a search. When you think about it — it is an odd thing to do if a car is already parked legally. Why would you “search” a car that is legally there without probable cause, before it could cause a violation?

Related to this issue is the practice of placing a tracker on a car. Police can’t do that without a warrant (for example, how officers tracked Josh Powell’s minivan around Puyallup). The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that law enforcement could not place a tracker on a car without a warrant. If not for that ruling, and the standard it established, the tire chalking case may not have moved as far as it did.

“It was a decision called US v. Jones … it’s a very important case because it went back to the property-based approached to 4th Amendment protections for a search,” McKenna said. “It’s about police putting a GPS tracker on a suspect’s vehicle, a suspected drug dealer’s vehicle. The Supreme Court held that affixing a tracker to a vehicle is a form of trespass. You can do it for law enforcement purposes if you obtain a warrant.”

At first, it didn’t make much sense to McKenna — likening the use of technology like GPS to chalk on a tire. But then he read the court’s opinion.

“When there is a physical intrusion — marking the tires is a physical intrusion — it is a search if the area intruded upon is constitutionally protected — your car is protected to some extent — and it is done to obtain information to be used for a criminal conviction, in this case it’s a citation,” he said.

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