Sixth Circuit “Chalking” Case Goes Forward
The lawsuit against the City of Saginaw for “chalking” tires as part of the City’s parking enforcement continues. Previously, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that using chalk to mark the tire of a parked vehicle was a search under the Fourth Amendment. And now, the court has held that no warrantless search exceptions apply, so the case can still go forward.
The City of Saginaw and a parking enforcement officer were sued for the practice of chalking tires to determine how much time has passed and whether a car is now illegally parked. The plaintiff in the case alleged that chalking her tire without her consent violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unreasonable search. In a 2019 decision, the Sixth Circuit held that chalking a tire was a search. See Taylor v. City of Saginaw, 922 F.3d 328, 330 (6th Cir. 2019).
The court held that chalking tires was a trespass upon a constitutionally protected area to obtain information and thus a search. The court relied on a prior Supreme Court Decision, U.S. v. Jones. That case involved a GPS device to track a car’s movements. Taylor passed the Jones test because chalking a tire is contacting someone’s tire for finding out how long a car has been parked.
After the 2019 decision, the City moved for summary judgment in district court. The district court held that the administrative-search exception applied to what was now a warrantless search. A search for an administrative purpose may justify a warrantless search when the warrantless searches are designed to serve special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement. This could include highway checkpoints and drug-testing in certain contexts.
The case then went back to the Sixth Circuit. The court held that the administrative-search exception did not apply. The court determined that chalking did not involve any special needs, especially because parking enforcement could be done without chalking tires. Parking enforcement has been done for a long time without chalking, and the court found that chalking was unnecessary to meet the ordinary needs of law enforcement.
And what about the case against the individual parking enforcement officer? The parking enforcement officer was entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity involves a two-step analysis: (1) whether there was a violation of a constitutional right and (2) whether that right was clearly established. The officer was entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established, before this case in 2019 decided it, that chalking a car’s tires was a search under the Fourth Amendment. With the right not being clearly established, the officer is entitled to qualified immunity and will be dismissed from the case.
The case now goes back down to the district court. The plaintiff will seek to make this case into a class action, organizing a class from anyone else who had their tires chalked by the City. In the meantime, the bounds of what constitutes a search continue to change.
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