Fourth Amendment

Chalking tires is unconstitutional, federal judge rules, but plaintiffs won’t get traffic-ticket refunds as damages

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The practice of chalking tires to track how long cars are parked in the city of Saginaw, Michigan, is an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment, a federal judge ruled Monday.

U.S. District Judge Thomas L. Ludington of the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that class action members who received parking tickets were entitled to nominal damages of $1 for each instance of chalking.

Ludington ruled after two appeals in the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati. On the first appeal, the 6th Circuit ruled that chalking tires without a warrant is a search that is presumptively unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. On the second, the appeals court said several exceptions to the warrant requirement do not shield the city.

“This court must take the 6th Circuit’s prior decisions one step further,” Ludington wrote. “Defendants’ chalking was not only a search under the Fourth Amendment but also a violation of it.”

Ludington ruled in a class action suit by Alison Taylor, who challenged the city’s practice of chalking after her vehicle was chalked 14 times over three years, resulting in 14 parking tickets.

In his Aug. 8 opinion, Ludington rejected the city’s argument that it was protected by a de minimis exception to the warrant requirement.

“Neither the de minimis exception nor any other exception applies to the facts of this case,” Ludington wrote.

But Ludington did not agree that the city should reimburse the cost of parking tickets issued after chalking, which range from $15 to $30. He said Taylor’s interest in “preventing a harmless trespass like tire chalking” would be vindicated by the nominal $1 award.

“Unlike a typical Fourth Amendment case, in which the injury might be a broken arm or damaged property, the ‘injury’ alleged here is a parking ticket—an injury that, though causally connected to the constitutional violation (i.e., chalking), does not directly flow from it,” Ludington said.

Hat tip to, the Detroit News and Law & Crime, which had coverage of the decision.

A lawyer who represented Taylor, Philip L. Ellison, told that there is a possibility of appeal on the issue of how much Saginaw, Michigan, is required to pay class members. He said the class action has about 2,000 plaintiffs who received more than 5,000 tickets.

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