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Will Seattle parking officers still use chalk on car tires?


Drivers across the United States cheered with glee this week, upon hearing the latest ruling from a federal court — using chalk to mark tires for parking enforcement is unconstitutional.

But don’t cheer too much. It will likely take a while for any changes to happen on a local level.

“We still chalk,” said Sergeant Sean Whitcomb with the Seattle Police Department.

“There are still some officers who do it the old-fashioned way with a chalk stick, drive around, and then a couple hours later, see if the car has moved,” he said.

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The ruling came down from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit — which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee.

As Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross, the court determines that placing chalk on a car tire amounts to a search under the Constitution. It’s a search when two conditions are met: When it’s trespassing on a constitutionally protected area (i.e. your car); and when the intrusion occurs to obtain information.

“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,” McKenna explained.

But the 6th Circuit Court is pretty far from Seattle. Whitcomb said that drivers shouldn’t expect any orders to cease chalking tires to come down to Seattle just yet. In other words, you might want to keep checking on your car.

The other thing to understand about Seattle parking enforcement is that different parts of town use different types of monitoring.

“Our fleet does not rely only on chalk sticks,” Whitcom said.

Officers also use a computerized systems in some places — license plate readers and GPS. Whitcomb says this computerized system “can read plates and note where they are parked. If that enforcement officer returns after a certain time, and the car is still there in the same spot over an allotted time, the officer can issue an infraction.”

So for the time being, chalk it up to business as usual in Seattle.

Whitcomb also noted that when it comes to these types of legal decisions, it can take time to filter down to local authorities. For example, “sometimes when the Legislature passes new laws, sometimes there is a date at which those go into effect. Sometimes there is a period of transition and adjustment. Usually that applies to enforcement, as opposed to lack of enforcement.”

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