Federal court erases tire-chalking practice: Houghton examines monitoring options

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette An unchalked tire of a car is seen on Shelden Avenue. The city is evaluating options for keeping track of cars parked in one- and two-hour parking areas after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled chalking tires is unconstitutional.

HOUGHTON — In response to a recent federal court ruling, the Houghton Police Department is looking for a new way to track how long cars have been parked.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled chalking tires violates the Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable searches. The ruling, issued Monday, arose from a suit from a Saginaw woman who had been issued 15 parking tickets in that city between 2014 and 2017.

The intentional physical contact with the vehicle qualifies as trespassing, the court found.

Both sides agreed the chalking was done to obtain information; put together, those qualify the act as a search.

And the court ruled the search did not qualify for the community caretaker exception to the Fourth Amendment. That would have required the city demonstrate a risk to public safety from the extended parking, or “injury or ongoing harm” to the community resulting from delaying the search.

The ruling applies throughout the Sixth Circuit, which comprises Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

Houghton has a mix of one- and two-hour parking on Shelden Avenue, Police Chief John Donnelly said.

Before the ruling, parking attendant Marcy Rajala chalked tires to track how long they’ve been parked.

“I don’t understand it,” Donnelly said of the ruling. “You’re not going into a vehicle.”

Houghton might follow the example of Harbor Springs, which is posting a notice in its downtown that says tires are subject to being chalked.

For now, Donnelly said, the city will photograph the parking spots. He also liked an audience suggestion to put a chalk mark on the ground in front and behind the tire.