Parking enforcement is now a little trickier in some jurisdictions. In some places, parking enforcement officers place chalk on a car’s tires. The officer then comes back later to see if the chalk is still there. If it is, they believe there is evidence the car never moved and if it the vehicle has been there longer than the time allowed, the officer may issue a citation for a time limit violation. Despite this being a longstanding and widespread enforcement method, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this practice unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment.
Interestingly, this appeal did not arise in criminal court. Instead, the person who received the parking tickets sued the city of Saginaw, Michigan and the officer who issued the parking tickets. The plaintiff brought her action under a federal civil action alleging a violation of her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The district court granted the motion to dismiss filed by defendants, but the court of appeals reversed.
The court of appeals engaged in a Fourth Amendment analysis. To do so, it relied on two signature Fourth Amendment cases: Katz and Jones. First, in citing Katz, it determined chalking tires is absolutely a search. Katz’s age-old rule is that if a government official invades an area where a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy, then a search occurs. The court used the rule from Jones to extend its analysis of governmental intrusions accompanied by actual physical intrusions. Jones states a search occurs when the government trespasses on a constitutionally protected area to obtain information.
In this case, the court of appeals reasoned that even though chalking a vehicle’s tires is a slight the intrusion, it still constitutes a common-law trespass, which satisfies the first factor in Jones. Second, the government’s intrusion was used to obtain information for the city to issue parking citations. Even so, the defendants argued the search was reasonable because people have a lower expectation of privacy in their vehicles. The court of appeals disagreed by reasoning the automobile exception was put in place for such circumstances regarding vehicles. But, the automobile exception requires probable cause, which did not exist here prior to the intrusion – the placing of the chalk.
Defendants also tried using the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement. This exception applies when the government is acting as “community caretakers” and not as typical law enforcement actors. However, courts generally only apply the community-caretaker exception when public safety is at risk. If the delay in getting a warrant would likely harm the community at large, then the exception would apply. Here, there is no risk to the public at large for the dire need to chalk tires; therefore, the exception did not apply.
While this case deals specifically with parking enforcement, it will likely have a greater impact on broader Fourth Amendment analysis. When law enforcement decides to intrude (or search) on a person or their property without a warrant, they need a valid exception to the warrant requirement, even if they subjectively believe their intrusion is slight.
Robert H. Ambrose is a criminal defense lawyer and DWI attorney in Minnesota. Super Lawyers named him a Rising Star for the past five years; The National Trial Lawyer’s Organization named him a Top 40 Under 40 Trial Lawyer the past six years. He is a member of the National College of DUI Defense; and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and Mitchell Hamline School of Law. DWI Attorney Woodbury; DUI Lawyer Minnesota; and Washington County DWI Lawyers.