Recently, I was listening to an episode of Planet Money (Episode 921: Tales From The Parking Lot) while walking along a tree-lined and car-parked street. In it was a story about a lawyer named Matt Gronda who successfully brought a suit against Saginaw, Michigan because he believes (I’m going to suggest here that this is lawyer “believes” and not genuinely believes) that the chalk placed on your tire by the meter/parking maid constitutes unlawful search.
Let’s pause here for a second to make sure we are all on the same page.
Here is what Gronda is upset about. Someone comes to a public space, specifically the public roadway that can serve as time-limited parking, and parks their car. Then a meter maid stops by, marks everyone’s tires with water-soluble chalk, and leaves. She swings by 2 hours later (the time allotted for free parking) and if the chalk is still there on your tire, you are charged a fee for breaking the rules.
It’s hilarious to me that this has become an argument about unreasonable searches.
Our friend the lawyer is hoping to get the state to refund everyone’s parking tickets (also, presumably to get a significant payout for himself in the process) and stop this practice all together. But consider: if Matt is successful, what is the likely outcome? The city places parking meters at every single one of these 2-hour parking spots and probably charges a small fee for the first two hours you are there, and more thereafter. Likely everyone this lawsuit is “helping out” loses because now they have to pay for their first couple of hours. Not to mention, these same folks will likely still be getting tickets, because if you ignored the 2-hour limit previously, you’re probably going to ignore the expiration on your meter.
Now, if you are like me, that alternative the city is likely to end up with actually sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
A good or service is provided—in this case, a spot in which you can store your 4,000 pound vehicle for a specific period of time—and in return, you pay for it. Seems like capitalism and fairness at work.
I am sure Mr. Gronda would concede that this alternative does resolve the delicate issue of searching your vehicle… with chalk. But sometimes I wonder if we are missing the forest for the trees. Should we even provide free parking? A city has to maintain that street where you park, and the street, other than charging for parking along it, generates no revenue. If the cost of repairing the streets is passed on indiscriminately to the population of a city, then the burden for its repairs does not reflect the people who create the need for most of that repair: the people who utilize the road.
Charging for parking is about as close as you can get to directly assessing a fee to the people who receive benefits from parking on a street.
So I will continue my defense of the parking and meter maids. They are our last line of defense against the scofflaws who use our public infrastructure but are unwilling to pay their fair share of its maintenance.