Marking tires with chalk to issue parking tickets is now illegal in four states, but ticket-weary Florida drivers should resist any urge to celebrate.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled unanimously Monday that the practice of "chalking" constitutes an unreasonable search, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The ruling, however, applies only to that circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Florida is part of the 11th Circuit, so a separate case would need to be heard before any changes were enacted here.
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The cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater all use chalk to monitor parking, though to various degrees. In downtown St. Petersburg, parking enforcement officers routinely circle the area, placing chalk marks on the tires of parked vehicles. If the marks are still there after the posted time for parking has passed, the officer issues a $25 ticket.
Tampa and Clearwater mostly use an electronic system to accomplish the same task, but officers also have been chalking tires on occasion, especially for handicap spaces or during peak times.
As of this week, though, Tampa has stopped all manual chalking and, until further notice, will use only the electronic method, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said.
St. Petersburg has no plans to change its policy, though legal departments for both cities will monitor the issue.
"Chalking tires has been used for over 60 years … and is widely-used across the country as a non-invasive way to keep track of overtime parking," St. Petersburg city spokesman Ben Kirby said.
The appellate case originated in Saginaw, Mich., where Alison Taylor, "a frequent recipient of parking tickets," sued the city. Taylor argued that chalking constituted an unreasonable search.
Between 2014 and 2017, the same parking enforcement officer — Tabitha Hoskins — chalked Taylor’s tires and issued tickets 15 times. Fines started at $15 and increased from there.
On April 5, 2017, Taylor had enough and sued the city. Chalking her tires without her consent or a valid warrant was an unreasonable search, she argued. A district court agreed that it constituted a search, but deemed it reasonable.
The appellate judges sided with Taylor, noting that the city was searching vehicles that were parked legally. The chalk mark, or search, was made "without probable cause, or even so much as 'individualized suspicion of wrongdoing' — the touchstone of the reasonableness standard," Judge Bernice Donald wrote in the opinion.
The case pertained only to the method the city uses to monitor parking, and does not prevent cities in Michigan or the other states from "maintaining efficient, orderly parking" and writing tickets.
"Obviously, they have a right to monitor how long somebody stays in a free space," Tampa lawyer Lyann Goudie said. "What they found was that the particular method the city used is unconstitutional."
Goudie was at first surprised at the ruling, calling the case "a weird one." But the opinion clearly lays out that marking a legally parked car is a trespass used to gather information with no probable cause.
Even if a similar case arose in Florida, Stetson University College of Law Professor Charles Rose said "there is no way in the world" the court here would make the same decision.
"I would give it a less than 2 percent chance," he said.
That's because the 11th circuit has historically taken a more conservative philosophy on the Fourth Amendment, Rose said. He also disagreed that marking a tire constitutes a search, instead citing an administrative search exception and equating it to mass DUI stops, which happen legally without probable cause.
"If I was advising a city, I would not be concerned about this happening here," Rose said. "But I might look at what ways we could use technology to accomplish the same goal without an actual physical intrusion on a car."
Taking a picture, like Tampa does, is one way to do that. It also provides enforcement officers with evidence to use in court.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.