SALT LAKE CITY — It's a dream come true for some city dwellers.
Too bad it has no effect in Utah.
An Ohio-based federal appeals court this week ruled unconstitutional the practice of chalking tires to see how long a person is parked. The justices sided with a Michigan driver, finding a city parking officer trespassed by marking her tires.
"Parking is one of the most contentious issues anybody deals with," said Lorna Vogt of Salt Lake City's public service division. But the time limits serve an important purpose, she said, keeping traffic flowing so drivers don't "use our curbs for just parking lots."
The new court decision pertains to just four states — Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Even so, some Utah attorneys say the reasoning behind it could one day affect more than just parking and possibly put limits on criminal investigations in the Beehive State.
Two of Utah's most populous cities are already dropping the chalk, turning instead to more efficient digital cameras. The ruling out this week does not touch on the new technology.
Utah's capital city has all but abandoned markings and now snaps photos containing timestamps. It uses chalk only to determine if a car has stayed put in the same spot for two full days, a violation of a city storage ordinance, Vogt said. City lawyers were reviewing the practice this week in light of the new decision from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
About 1,600 miles to the east, in Saginaw, Michigan, Alison Taylor had racked up more than a dozen $15 tickets after an officer marked her wheels. The parking officer violated her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, she argued, and the court agreed, finding the practice akin to entering a property without a search warrant.
"I’m very glad the three judges who got this case took it seriously," Taylor’s attorney, Philip Ellison, told the Associated Press.
In Utah, Ogden continues to use chalk and has no concerns about a similar legal challenge, said Ogden Police Lt. Will Farr, who oversees parking compliance for the city.
"That's not in the same district as we are, and that's also a small court ruling," he said. Farr added that the city constantly reviews its policies and would conform with any future decision that applies to Utah.
In Provo, enforcers sometimes carry chalk, but now mostly use a digital scanner that attaches to city cars and reads license plates, said Karen Larsen, the city's director of customer service. Provo has budgeted to buy two more of the high-tech tools, which allow an employee to stay in the car while collecting the data.
The move is welcome to restaurant owners and business operators who want to free up spots for customers in the fast-growing city, Larsen said.
And while drivers may see the ticketing system as a racket, Larsen says that's not so. Parking violations bring in $300,000 to $400,000 a year, but Provo generally spends within $10,000 to $20,000 of the revenue just to cover enforcement costs.
"It's basically a revenue-neutral service," Larsen said.
In the new court decision, the justices cited a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found secretly putting a GPS device on a vehicle without a proper warrant amounts to trespassing on a person's property.
Jim Bradshaw, a Salt Lake attorney who works largely on search and seizure cases, said as more courts consider that reasoning focused on a person's property rights, they may come to restrict how far police can go in trying to gather evidence from cars.
"It conceivably could limit K-9 searches by law enforcement," he said. "Even though chalk is the most old school approach to gathering evidence, this approach of looking at it as trespass — that it is a trespass — is important."
For example, in November troopers pulled over a man in Tooele County and seized about $90,000 from his car after a drug-sniffing dog jumped in through the window, apparently alerting officers to drugs. But no illegal substances were found and a court last month ordered the Utah Highway Patrol to repay the driver, who became Bradshaw's client. Under the same point of view the court took in this week's chalk case, the police dog jumping through the window could be considered an unconstitutional search, Bradshaw said.31 comments on this story
In Utah County, another driver is alleging unlawful search after police touched his car as part of an investigation. The same principle applies, said the driver's attorney Doug Thompson, even though "the contact was pretty minimal."
Earlier this year, Thompson points out, another federal court out of Texas found that knocking on a person's tire to see if there are drugs inside and without a warrant is unconstitutional.
There's no telling whether the U.S. Supreme Court would take up the chalking case if the city of Saginaw appeals, Thompson said, but "it would be cool if this one went up, because there's not so much at stake for either of the participants, but the principle is really important."