Sonoma parking enforcers may surrender their chalk wands

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Parking in downtown Sonoma is limited to three hours, and enforced by a team of volunteers, Sheriff’s deputies and city personnel. Overstay your welcome in a parking space downtown, and you may find a $35 ticket on your windshield when you return.

The time limits are policed the old-fashioned way, by individuals using long, chalk-tipped wands to mark tires.

Those chalk marks were the focus of recent arbitration, however, in which the Michigan U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that marking a car’s tires was a form of trespass requiring a warrant and, as such, amounted to an illegal government search. The three-judge panel decided that the practice was a violation of 4th amendment protections, reversing a lower court’s prior dismissal.

The city of Saginaw, Michigan, defended the case brought by resident Alison Taylor, arguing that parking controlled by way of chalked tires was attendant to its mission to protect public safety. But the judges of the 6th circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, disagreed. “The purpose of chalking is to raise revenue, and not to mitigate public hazard,” they wrote.

In Sonoma, the revenue generated by parking citations is not insignificant. Last year, $67,000 was collected from 2,012 tickets, according to police chief Lt. Orlando Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said when he heard about the 6th Circuit’s first-of-its-kind decision, he temporarily stopped his staff from chalking tires. “Until I received direction from the City Attorney, who later advised us that we could continue,” he said.

Decisions handed down from the 6th Circuit court are binding only within the circuit's geographical borders. The decision may be predictive of changes made to other regional law, but it is not legally binding in California. Still, it is easy to imagine scofflaws nationwide rejoicing, sensing an opportunity to make a mile from the 6th Circuit's inch.

For Plaza businesses, though, parking issues aren’t only academic; offenders who clog spaces affect the bottom line. “When someone hogs up parking in front of my shop all day, we totally feel it,” said Cindy Holman, who owns Wildeflower on West Napa. “All the time, people come into the shop and say, ‘I stopped because there was a space in front.’”

Holman owns a second shop called Gathered in Healdsburg, where the chalk stick has already gone the way of other obsolete things. “There’s a little car that takes photos of the license plates. They don’t chalk anymore, and parking is highly enforced,” adding that it makes a difference to her shop’s profitability. “Here, parking is not adequately policed,” she said.

Lt. Matt Jenkins of the Healdsburg Police Department told the Index-Tribune that the city adopted an Auto License Plate Reader (ALPR) system in November 2018. “It’s a much more efficient way to control parking,” Jenkins said. “With chalking, you can see if your tire has been marked. With ALPR you can’t game the system, and it inherently increases turnover. We can continually monitor motor vehicles downtown, and that’s helped increase parking turnover in the downtown district.”

In the wake of Michigan’s criminalization of meter minders wielding calcium carbonate, Sonoma has begun to study 21st century solutions, too.

“The next coming year, we will be exploring other options instead of chalking tires, such as photographing/video to mark a vehicle’s location to a parking stall,” Rodriguez said.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

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