Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: No chalk on the tires in Spokane’s parking enforcement

The city of Spokane stopped chalking tires in 2014 when it installed a license plate reader on one of its parking enforcement vehicles. A federal court recently ruled that chalking is unconstitutional. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

In some American cities, the savvy motorist can examine their tires and rest assured they can continue parking – over the allotted time, illegally and free from meter maid fear.

This is the not-so-secret way to avoid a parking ticket. In many communities, parking enforcers comb the streets with a long-handled chalk holder, clandestinely marking tires in hidden locations where the unaware driver may miss it. On their next go-around, if a car hadn’t moved in the time parking was allowed, a ticket is written up and stuck on the windshield.

Turns out, chalking tires is illegal, according to a ruling in case from Saginaw, Michigan, that could have national implications.

It starts in 2012, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that police had violated the rights of a man named Antoine Jones after attaching a GPS device to his car – without a warrant – and tracking his movements for four weeks. Some of the justices thought the surveillance measure had gone too far and violated Jones’ privacy rights. Five of the justices, however, said the issue had more to do with trespassing. In other words, the cops shouldn’t have touched Jones’ car.

Fast forward a few years to Saginaw, and the case of Alison Taylor, who had gotten 14 parking tickets in three years, all of them written by one officer, according to a story in the New York Times.

She paired up with some attorneys and sued. In 2017, she lost when a trial court sided with the city, saying that chalking was indeed a search, but it was a reasonable one. Police, the judge ruled, are in the business of “community caretaking,” and therefore have the authority to enforce parking rules. They can even tow cars.

Taylor appealed, and her case ended up before a three-judge panel at the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee.

As Governing magazine reported recently, the appellate panel used the Supreme Court ruling as precedent to declare tire chalking in Saginaw as unconstitutional. In short, the three judges found that chalking violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. In other words, the parking cop shouldn’t have touched Taylor’s car, even with his long-handled chalk holder.

“There has been a trespass in this case because the city made intentional physical contact” with vehicles, according to the ruling. Enforcing parking limits is not a matter of public safety, but simply a way of raising revenue, the judges said. With that, they agreed with Taylor “because we chalk this practice up to a regulatory exercise, rather than a community-caretaking function.”

The city of Saginaw is appealing the decision, but at this point chalking is illegal in a handful of states. But how does it affect Spokane? In this case, Spokane is ahead of the curve.

“We don’t chalk tires anymore, haven’t for some time,” said Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman. “We sometimes take photos of cars to document them if we need to.”

The city upgraded from chalk in 2014, when it equipped a Ford Focus with a digital license plate reader to prowl the streets looking for parking scofflaws. This high-tech surveillance isn’t afoul of the appellate court decision because there’s no physical touching of the vehicle involved. Just high-tech surveillance.

Andrew Rolwes, vice president of public policy and parking at the Downtown Spokane Partnership, said the license plate readers are a good way to modernize the city’s parking system, and noted that a recent parking study, done by the transportation consultant company Nelson\Nygaard, suggested expanding the use of the technology. The City Council voted last month to put $240,000 toward enacting the study’s suggestions.

Rolwes is right. The study encourages the city to “purchase additional License Plate Recognition equipment to support the city’s use of digital permits and license plate-based payments including mobile payment and pay stations. LPR will also increase parking enforcement efficiencies and parker compliance in loading zones and at meters with time limits by utilizing digital chalking.”

Before “digital chalking” gets your blood up, realize it’s part and parcel of the city’s effort to make parking less confusing and frustrating. There’s plenty of parking in the city core – about 37,000 parking spaces in total. Managing those spaces – which are a mishmash of city-owned, privately-owned, on- and off-street spaces – in a thoughtful, centralized way should make it better.

Regardless, some people still argue that parking should be free because, well, it’s free at Northtown or Spokane Valley Mall, why not downtown?

Rolwes has an answer for that.

“On-street parking is intended to be a convenience in a dense downtown , especially a downtown with a strong restaurant and retail sector component,” Rolwes said. “The spaces close to your coffee shops, restaurants, hotels – those spaces should turn over so the people that want access to those businesses can get there. It serves the businesses quite well to have on-street parking.”

Seattle, Portland deadliest in years, Spokane stays steady

The Seattle Times reported last month that 2019 has been the deadliest year for pedestrians in Seattle since 2010. During the first half of the year, 101 people were seriously injured or killed in 98 collisions on Seattle streets.

“Of those crashes, 10 were fatal. Five people were killed while in car, truck or on a motorcycle; four were killed while walking and one while riding a bicycle,” wrote Michelle Baruchman, for the paper’s Traffic Lab.

In Portland, Willamette Week reported that a motorcycle crash July 25 at Northeast 82nd Avenue and Northeast Alderwood Road near the Portland International Airport was the 34th traffic-related death in the city – matching the number of deaths for all of 2018.

The roads in the two largest U.S. cities in the Pacific Northwest are the most dangerous they have been in recent years. But how safe are the streets of Spokane?

They can be deadly, but nothing like what’s happening to the west.

During the first six months of this year, there were 44 crashes involving 66 vehicles that led to death or serious injury in the city of Spokane. Three people died. Halfway through the year, we’re about halfway to the numbers in 2018, when the city experienced 80 crashes involving 120 vehicles that led to serious injury or death. Seven people were killed.

So far this year, five of the crashes were the result of drunk driving. Two involved driving under the influence of drugs. Seven involved speeding. Nine involved inattentive drivers. Ten involved young motorists between the ages of 16 and 25. Seven involved drivers over the age of 70.