Chalking tires illegal, judge says, but city gets big break

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DETROIT — A Michigan city violated the U.S. Constitution by chalking tires to enforce parking limits, but it won’t be forced to refund thousands of tickets in the class-action case, a judge said.

Saginaw must only pay vehicle owners “nominal damages” of $1 for each marking, U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington said Monday.

“The basic problem is that chalking is relatively harmless,” he said, noting there was no damage to cars.

Saginaw staff marked tires and subsequently wrote tickets if they returned to find a vehicle was parked too long.

After five years of litigation, including two appeals to a higher court, Ludington ruled in favor of Alison Taylor, who received 14 tickets. The judge said marking tires without a warrant violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches.

“No reasonable person would argue that something as trivial and transitory as chalk on a tire offends a reasonable expectation of privacy. But the Fourth Amendment protects more than those expectations that society deems reasonable,” Ludington said.

Saginaw, among other arguments, had cited a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of police who were investigating a murder and scraped paint from a vehicle without a search warrant. Ludington said that case didn’t fit.

“The governmental interest in solving a murder is considerably greater than the governmental interest in enforcing a parking ordinance,” he said.

Tire chalking was used in approximately 4,800 Saginaw parking tickets, which cost $15 or $30, depending on whether they were paid on time, Taylor’s attorney, Phil Ellison, said in a court filing.

Saginaw stopped chalking tires in 2019.

“We cleaned clock. We did very well. Nobody had ever done this before,” Ellison said Tuesday.

But he said he was still trying to understand why the judge ordered only $1 per chalking as a remedy. An appeal by either side is possible.

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