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The Parking Enforcement Method Ruled Unconstitutional

For nearly a century, cities have enforced parking restrictions by chalking the tires of parked cars, making it easy to determine which ones are abusing the usual two-hour limit. It turns out that this practice is unconstitutional, at least in a handful of states.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police had violated the rights of a suspect by attaching a GPS tracking device to his car and monitoring his movements for 28 days. The decision was unanimous, but the justices were divided 5-4 over what the problem was. Four justices thought that ongoing surveillance violated privacy rights. The majority, however, ruled that the issue was trespassing: Police had physically touched the suspect’s car.

This spring, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals applied that precedent and logic, finding that the practice of chalking tires in Saginaw, Mich., was unconstitutional. “There has been a trespass in this case because the city made intentional physical contact” with vehicles, the court concluded. The ruling applies throughout the 6th Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, as well as Michigan. Saginaw is appealing the decision, but for now, cities throughout the region are putting away their chalk. “It’s unfortunate because as a business owner, you don’t want people sitting in those parking spots for 12 hours,” says Tom Miller Jr., vice president of Saginaw Future, an economic development agency. “It puts a strain on the municipality, because then the alternative is to hire more parking folks.”

They may not have to hire more people, but cities and counties will have to come up with something to replace chalk. They can certainly put in meters, but there are more modern technologies available. Enforcement vehicles can be equipped with scanners that detect license plate numbers. Traffic cameras can be similarly configured to monitor cars. Sometimes officers take out their phones and snap pictures of plates. “Parking enforcement is going increasingly digital,” says C.J. Gabbe, an urban planning professor at Santa Clara University in California. “Cities are increasingly trying to use technology in the on-street parking game.”

It’s possible that the court decision will nudge more localities to modernize their parking enforcement. There are costs upfront, but they’ll be able to use the digital information they glean to get a better grasp of how parking is used and what the community’s needs really are. That’s a potential silver lining for Saginaw and other cities. But future judges may have to decide whether constant digital parking surveillance is somehow less intrusive than a stripe of chalk.

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