A Helena parking officer chalks the tire of a truck

A Helena parking officer chalks the tire of a truck on Lawrence Avenue in this IR file photo. The city of Helena will no longer be marking tires downtown after a federal court of appeals determined that practice was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

A federal appeals court has ruled that marking tires to enforce parking rules is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, but the city of Helena has been planning to discontinue the practice anyway. 

Dave Hewitt, parking director for the city of Helena's Parking Commission, said the city will switch to a more technologically advanced parking enforcement program in the coming months that will negate the need to mark tires with chalk to see if they have moved. 

"The only time we chalked was when we had an area of limited-time parking," Hewitt said. "Instead of using chalk, we will use a program on our handhelds that will take a picture of the tire."

On Monday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declared marking tires unconstitutional in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. 

The plaintiff in the federal case, a Michigan woman named Alison Taylor, had received more than a dozen $15 tickets for exceeding the two-hour parking limit in Saginaw. The city marks tires with chalk to keep track of how long a vehicle is parked. Her lawyer argued that a parking patrol officer violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed.

The purpose of marking tires was to "raise revenue," not to protect the public against a safety risk, the court said. 

"The city does not demonstrate, in law or logic, that the need to deter drivers from exceeding the time permitted for parking — before they have even done so — is sufficient to justify a warrantless search under the community caretaker rationale," the court said.

The court overturned an opinion by U.S. District Judge Thomas Ludington, who had called the legal theory "unorthodox" and dismissed the case in favor of Saginaw.

Taylor's attorney, Philip Ellison, began researching the issue when another lawyer complained that his tire was marked while he sat in his car. It's apparently a common practice in downtown Saginaw, where there are no meters to enforce time limits.

He argued that marking tires was similar to police secretly putting a GPS device on a vehicle without a proper warrant, which was the subject of a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

"We don't think everyone deserves free parking," Ellison told The Associated Press. "But the process Saginaw selected is unconstitutional. ... I'm very glad the three judges who got this case took it seriously. It affects so many people."

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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