We’ve all parked on public streets. And if you’ve done it frequently, you’re probably familiar with the police practice of marking tires with chalk to determine whether or not your vehicle has been parked too long.

Is that practice legal?

That was tested recently in the case of Alison Taylor, a Saginaw, MI resident with over a dozen parking tickets. She took her case all the way to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and asked that very question.

In what may be a landmark decision, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals says “no”. The reasoning for this is a bit technical, but let me walk you through the logic.

As with everything in law, future decisions build upon past decisions – especially decisions by the Supreme Court. This is called “precedent”, and it’s at the core of the modern legal system.

It turns out that in a 10-year-old Supreme Court case – “United States v. Jones” – the government installed a GPS unit on a car belonging to Jones. They had a warrant from one state, but they did the GPS installation in a different state. And by installing the device, they got evidence to convict Jones of drug-related crimes.

The court held in that case that a valid warrant was necessary to install a GPS device, because the Fourth Amendment protects the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The government didn’t have a valid warrant since it wasn’t issued by the correct state – so the case was dismissed.

The Supreme Court commented further that:

“the Government’s physical intrusion on an ‘effect’ for the purpose of obtaining information constitutes a ‘search.’ This type of encroachment on an area enumerated in the Amendment would have been considered a search within the meaning of the Amendment at the time it was adopted.”

To simplify a bit, if the government has to mess with the things you own in order to gather evidence to convict you, that’s a “search” according to the Supreme Court.

Back to parking tickets.

When the police “chalk” your tire, they’re effectively making a modification (the chalk) to your car. That modification makes the car part of the process of gathering evidence against you, which makes the modification a “search” under the 4th Amendment. Which means it requires a warrant.

The court ruled that the typical exemptions to needing a warrant don’t apply, since parking violations aren’t serious enough crimes to require those exemptions.

Hence, chalking tires is a violation of the 4th Amendment – and therefore illegal.

Will this apply in Wisconsin? Time will tell. And of course if two circuit courts disagree, then the Supreme Court will have to take up the case.

But as with many court cases, this is a reminder that even the most “obviously guilty” people still have rights, and the government is legally required to respect those rights.

This is, incidentally, one of the best reasons to have a lawyer on your side during a criminal case. Because of the complexity of the legal system, many people don’t even know the many rights they have! An experienced lawyer can not only make sure you know your rights, but make sure the government respects those rights.

If you’re ever in a legal jam, don’t go it alone – contact a qualified lawyer immediately!

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