Can the police chalk your tires?
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
You may have heard news reports of a court ruling, that holds that the police are no longer allowed to mark your tires with chalk to see how long you have parked in a particular space. However, these stories are not entirely accurate. In Oklahoma at least, police are still allowed to chalk your tires.
Here is the true story:
Alison Taylor, of Saginaw, Michigan, had received fifteen parking tickets within three years. Fed up with all of the parking tickets, Ms. Taylor sued the city of Saginaw. Ms. Taylor filed her suit in federal court, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In her lawsuit, Ms. Taylor argued that chalking tires violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Ms. Taylor argued that chalking tires was a warrantless search, and, therefore, violated the Fourth Amendment.
The City of Saginaw filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Taylor’s case, and the District Court dismissed the case. The District Court held that chalking was a search. However, the District Court held that chalking was a “reasonable” search, and, therefore, did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the Fourth Amendment only prohibits “unreasonable searches.” The Court held that chalking was a reasonable search because:
There is a reduced expectation of privacy in automobiles, and
The police, in chalking tires, were acting as “community caretakers”, and were not performing law enforcement functions. Prior cases had held that if police are acting as community caretakers, they may conduct warrantless searches.
Ms. Taylor appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals – the federal appeals court which has jurisdiction over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. On April 22, 2019,
The Sixth Circuit reversed the District Court, and ruled in favor of Ms. Taylor. The Sixth Circuit held that the District Court was wrong to dismiss Ms. Taylor’s lawsuit.
However, it’s important to note what the Sixth Circuit said – and what it did not say.
The Sixth Circuit first noted that the City of Saginaw had filed its motion to dismiss, under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The Sixth Circuit wrote that, under Rule 12(b)(6),
“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. … we must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept all allegations as true. … The defendant has the burden of showing that the plaintiff has failed to state a plausible claim for relief.”
The Sixth Circuit then held that Ms. Taylor had stated a plausible claim for relief. The Court Sixth Circuit disagreed with the District Court’s dismissal, for the following reasons:
The District Court held that chalking a tire was reasonable because there was a reduced expectation of privacy in automobiles. The Sixth Circuit said this ruling was erroneous, because prior cases which allowed warrantless searches of automobiles, allowed these searches when officers had probable cause to believe the vehicle contains evidence of a crime. Because police, when they chalk tires, do not have probable cause to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of a crime, the “automobile exception” to the warrant requirement, didn’t apply.
The District Court held that the police were acting as “community caretakers” and could therefore chalk tires. The Sixth Circuit held that this ruling was wrong, because the “community caretaker” exception to the warrant requirement, only applies “when delay is reasonably likely to result in injury or ongoing harm to the community at large.” Because the city could not show that chalking tires was necessary to prevent injury or ongoing harm to the community, the community caretaker exception didn’t apply either.
At the end of its opinion, the Court wrote,
“This is not to say that this exception can never apply to the warrantless search of a lawfully parked vehicle. Nor does our holding suggest that no other exceptions to the warrant requirement might apply in this case. However, on these facts and on the arguments the City proffers, the City fails to meet its burden in establishing an exception to the warrant requirement.”
Reading this language, it appears that the Sixth Circuit might be willing to allow the police to chalk tires, under certain circumstances.
However, as soon as the Sixth Circuit handed down its ruling, news outlets all over the country reported that a court had ruled that chalking tires was unconstitutional. This led many people to believe that police were no longer allowed to chalk their tires. Three days after its original ruling, the Sixth Circuit added another paragraph at the end of its opinion to clarify its ruling. In this new paragraph, the Sixth Circuit wrote:
“This does not mean, however, that chalking violates the Fourth Amendment. Rather, we hold, based on the pleading stage of this litigation, that two exceptions to the warrant requirement—the “community caretaking” exception and the motor-vehicle exception—do not apply here. Our holding extends no further than this. When the record in this case moves beyond the pleadings stage, the City is, of course, free to argue anew that one or both of those exceptions do apply, or that some other exception to the warrant requirement might apply.”
Note especially the words “the pleadings stage.” This means that, the Sixth Circuit had rendered its ruling based on the fact that the District Court was ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion. A 12(b)(6) motion is filed before any trial, indeed, even before any evidence is presented. The Sixth Circuit had noted that, in ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, the plaintiff’s case will survive if the “complaint … contain[s] sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” This is a very low standard for plaintiffs, and a high standard for defendants. The Court held that, on a 12(b)(6) motion, the City could not argue that the automobile exception to the warrant requirement applied, or that the community caretaker exception to the warrant requirement applied. The Court said, “Our holding extends no further than this.” The Sixth Circuit made clear that, at a future stage in the litigation, either of these exceptions (or some other exceptions to the warrant requirement) could apply. The Sixth Circuit then sent the case back to the District Court for further argument. The Sixth Circuit clarified that, at this stage of the litigation, police were still free to chalk tires.
A further point (which many media outlets didn’t mention) is that, this was a ruling of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction only over Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. A ruling of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has no effect at all elsewhere.
Which means that the Sixth Circuit ruling has no effect in Oklahoma. Even if the Sixth Circuit had ruled that the police couldn’t chalk tires (which the Sixth Circuit did not rule) police can still chalk your tires in Oklahoma. While some police departments have chosen not to chalk tires, this is an administrative decision made by police departments. No law, or court ruling, forbids police from chalking tires.
Read the Sixth Circuit’s ruling, here.