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City chucks chalk, not tickets

After federal court says chalked tires unconstitutional, Alpena shifts gears

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Alpena Downtown Development Authority Parking Ambassador Savannah Peterson writes down the license plate number of a car parked downtown Monday. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that the practice of chalking tires to monitor the time a person has parked in a short-term parking area is unconstitutional, so the DDA suspended the practice. The agency still will police the downtown parking lots, however, and issue citations by using other information pertaining to the vehicles.

ALPENA — The Alpena Downtown Development Authority has suspended its practice of chalking tires to monitor people who park in timed parking areas downtown, but violators can still be issued citations.

On Monday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the chalking of tires was unconstitutional, as it is considered an unreasonable form of search that does not play a role in public safety. The court also said in its opinion that the practice of marking tires was a strategy to raise money.

There are several areas of limited parking in the downtown area and DDA employs a parking ambassador who monitors lots and issues citations when needed. After learning of the court’s ruling, DDA Executive Director Anne Gentry informed Parking Ambassador Savannah Peterson to cease marking tires.

However, the practice of recording license plates and checking the time a vehicle has been parked will continue for the time being, as that method isn’t addressed in the court’s ruling.

“We have alerted our parking attendant and we have stopped chalking until we get more information and guidance,” Gentry said. “We will continue taking license plate numbers down, which has always been common practice, and check them that way.”

In the Saginaw case, Alison Taylor had received more than a dozen $15 tickets for exceeding that city’s two-hour parking limit in Saginaw. Her lawyer argued that a parking patrol officer violated the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches, and a three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed, overturning a U.S. District judge’s opinion that called the legal theory “unorthodox” and dismissed the case in favor of Saginaw.

Taylor’s attorney, Philip Ellison, 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.

Alpena Police Chief Joel Jett said the chalking of tires has been a widely and long-used practice for monitoring vehicles. He believes there could be another legal challenge to Monday’s ruling. He said he will ask City Attorney Bill Pfeifer to review the court’s opinion and make a recommendation on how best to handle the parking issue.

“Obviously, we just learned about this and are going to seek a legal opinion and we should know more, soon,” he said.

Gentry said having time limits on some parking lots downtown is necessary to make sure there is adequate parking in the heart of the city. The DDA also hopes time limits help encourage employees who work downtown to park in parking lots that have no time restrictions, which are a few blocks away from the busy business corridor.

“We use it to increase turnover downtown, especially for the prime parking spots we have in front of businesses, on the street, and in the popular parking lots,” she said. “We want to try to reserve that parking for people who are shopping or getting a bite to eat. We would like people who are coming downtown for the entire day to park a little further away and keep those spots for customers.”

Gentry said that, for the fiscal year 2017-18, the DDA received about $8,000 in revenue from parking citations, which cost $10 per violation. The penalty increases if the ticket is unpaid in 10 days or more.

Gentry said the parking citations revenue helps pay for the ambassador, but sometimes does not cover the entire cost.

Short-term parking lots in Alpena are located at the corner of River Street and 3rd Avenue, behind Mango’s Tequila Bar and behind The Alpena News, near the alley between 1st and 2nd avenues, between Park Place and Chisholm Street.

A complete parking map is available on the City of Alpena’ website.

Monday’s ruling sets a new standard for Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the states covered by the 6th Circuit.

The case will return to federal court in Bay City. Ellison wants Ludington to certify the lawsuit as a class-action, with refunds for people who got tickets. He said Saginaw has been collecting up to $200,000 a year with parking tickets from tire marking.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.