A Michigan city’s practice of chalking tires is an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment that isn’t justified by the administrative-search exception to the warrant requirement, the Sixth Circuit said Wednesday.
Unless some other exception applies, Alison P. Taylor may take Saginaw, Mich., to trial on her claim that it violated her constitutional rights by marking her car’s tire several times while it was parked in a downtown area, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said.
In a prior opinion in the same case, the Sixth Circuit held that chalking is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures. It also held that the community caretaking and motor vehicle exceptions don’t allow the warrantless search but that another exception might apply.
On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment to the city based on the administrative-search exception. The Sixth Circuit reversed and sent the case back to the trial court in an opinion by Judge Richard Allen Griffin.
A search conducted for an administrative purpose, such as a home inspection to detect noncompliance with municipal codes, may be conducted without a warrant if it meets reasonable regulatory or administrative standards, the Sixth Circuit said.
But the exception isn’t “a free-for-all for civil officers,” the court said. The subject of such a search must be given an opportunity for precompliance review, it said. Because car owners whose tires are chalked don’t have the same opportunity, the administrative-search exception doesn’t apply, it said.
The court also rejected the city’s argument that tire chalking is akin to an administrative search of a highly regulated industry, like liquor sales, firearm dealing, mining, or automobile junkyards. Municipal parking plainly doesn’t pose the same type of “clear and significant risk to the public welfare” as those industries, it said.
Tire chalking also isn’t designed “to serve special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement,” like sobriety checkpoints, the court said.
But the court affirmed summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds for the parking enforcement officer who chalked Taylor’s tires. Given the law at the time, it isn’t apparent every reasonable parking officer would have understood chalking to be an illegal search, the court said.
Judges Joan L. Larsen and John B. Nalbandian joined.
Outside Legal Counsel PLC represents Taylor. O’Neill, Wallace & Doyle PC represents Saginaw.
The case is Taylor v. City of Saginaw, Mich., 6th Cir., No. 20-1538, 8/25/21.