Appeals court rules tire chalking unconstitutional for parking enforcement; decision doesn’t impact Great Falls

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled this week that chalking vehicles for parking enforcement is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

So far, the decision does not affect Great Falls or other Montana cities since the 6th Circuit includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Great Falls does chalk vehicles as part of its parking enforcement program and city officials are aware of the court decision. City staff said Wednesday that they’ll discuss the potential impact of the decision.

The case at the 6th Circuit started in Saginaw, Mich. where a woman’s tired were chalked on 15 separate occasions between 2014 and 2017 and a city parking enforcement officer issued citations, according to the court documents. In Saginaw, the citations start at $15 and increase from there, according to the court documents.

In 2017, the woman filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action against the city, “alleging defendants violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches by placing chalk marks on her tires without her consent or a valid search warrant,” according to the court documents.

In their decision, Judge Bernice Bouie Donald wrote, “the city moved to dismiss the action. The district court granted the city’s motion, finding that, while chalking may have constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment, the search was reasonable. Because we chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function, we reverse.”

The court found that chalking is a a search under the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The court deemed the chalking of vehicles in this case was an unreasonable search.

A law professor at USC Gould, wrote that municipalities could likely avoid the entire Fourth Amendment issue by taking photos of vehicles to monitor time violations on public streets.

A number of entities have transitioned to licence plate recognition technologies that capture images of license plates for parking enforcement in garages, lots or on-street parking. Law enforcement and other entities nationwide also use LPR technologies in other ways.

Great Falls staff and the Parking Advisory Commission have discussed various technology options to assist with parking enforcement, but so far, no proposals have been made to transition to LPR.