Asking what meter maids have to do with the Fourth Amendment can seem a little bit like the unanswered puzzler the Mad Hatter asked Alice: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” But after a court ruling in 2019, it appears that how law enforcement issues parking tickets has everything to do with the Fourth Amendment.

Meter Maids Have and Fourth Amendment

(Pixabay / D-Vu)

The Fourth Amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1791 as a part of the Bill of Rights. The Founding Fathers felt particularly keen to add this amendment because of their experience with the King’s military barging into their residences and workplaces to look for and take smuggled goods and/or seditious or traitorous materials. This kind of unquestioned search and seizure was allowed back in England. It followed the settlers across the pond and became particularly troublesome when talks of revolution began circulating. In case you’ve forgotten, the Fourth Amendment states:

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.

In modern terms, there are basically two parts:

  1. People and their possessions are protected from unreasonable search and seizures
  2. No one can issue a warrant without evidence and probable cause, and the warrant needs to be specific in what it can search

So how do these points apply to the process of chalking tires?

Well, in 2017, Alison Taylor, a resident of Saginaw, Michigan, sued the city for violating her Fourth Amendment rights because they issued her so many parking tickets. She argued that by physically marking her car’s tire (a piece of property that is protected by the Fourth Amendment), the city was conducting a search without a warrant. She stated that she wasn’t doing anything harmful to the community by parking and that using the chalk to mark her tire was the same as using a device to gather information (such as a GPS tracker) to incriminate her. Initially, the court agreed that it was a search, but they dismissed the case because they didn’t feel that a piece of chalk was the same as higher-tech gadgetry such as a tracker. Basically, her argument fit the first part of the Fourth Amendment but not the second.

In 2019, however, the Federal Appeals Court for the Sixth Circuit (applying to Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee), reversed the decision and said that chalking tires does, in fact, violate both parts of the Fourth Amendment. They cited that because the city was chalking tires to raise revenue and not protect the public, that was not reason enough to conduct the search – AKA, there wasn’t probable cause, and the search was considered unreasonable.

What does that mean for Utah?

The Sixth Circuit Appeals Court doesn’t have jurisdiction over Utah residents, but what does this court ruling mean for Utahns? Simple: it means that times are changing. Utah lawmakers are paying attention to legislation around the country and adapting theirs to fit.

As it stands, few large cities in Utah use tire chalking as a means of monitoring parking anymore, and it’s often easy enough to monitor parking spots in smaller towns without having to mark the tires. That said, there are still cities in Utah who use the “old school” approach of physically marking tires, though these cities are fewer these days. That might seem like a win for people who get parking tickets often, but it could have some unintended consequences down the road.

The actual problem with marking tires was that something from a law enforcement official was coming into contact with something owned by a citizen without probable cause. To get around that, police are switching to more hands-off approaches of collecting information. Considered “electronic chalking,” police in Salt Lake City use license plate scanners to keep track of how long cars are parked in certain areas. Other police divisions are considering taking photos of the vehicles or tires to compare them against time cards.

Possible Implications

No chalk-line related ticketing may seem like a good thing for now, but law scholars predict that with this court decision, parking monitoring will shift from property surveillance to more privacy surveillance. Information gathered virtually and stored in databases instead of a simple chalk line could possibly be used in unrelated ways that also infringe upon the protections within the Fourth Amendment. One threat in particular is that the databases create a place that law enforcement can search without the need for a warrant. It can feel like a no-win situation.

All in all, this new legislation doesn’t apply directly to the people of Utah, but it is worth paying attention to. As a citizen, you have a duty to adhere to the law, but you also have rights that are protected by the Fourth Amendment. Lewis Carroll eventually answered the Mad Hatter’s question about the similarities between a raven and writing desk with the following: “Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!” Only time will tell how chalking tires and the Fourth Amendment will intersect in the end.