A court ruling Friday should cause city officials to rethink their approach to people living in vehicles, say lawyers from Columbia Legal Services.
CLS represented Steven Long, a man who lived in his truck until it was ticketed, towed, and impounded. Long was fined more than $500 to get his truck back, an amount his lawyers said was unconstitutionally excessive for someone experiencing homelessness.
Long won in court on Friday, when King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled that the city had violated his rights against excessive fines under the Eighth Amendment. The judge also ruled Long was protected by Washington’s Homestead Act, which protects homes from forced sale due to certain debts.
Alison Bilow and Ann LoGerfo, two CLS lawyers who worked on the case, said in an interview they believe this is the first ruling of this kind in the country. Impounding vehicles in which people live is a “criminalization of poverty,” LoGerfo said.
“We’re hoping the city and other cities across the state will look at this and rethink how they’re treating people who have no other choice but to live in a vehicle,” LoGerfo said.
The case began in October 2016, when Long was living in his truck parked near Judkins Park and I-90. Police arrived in the area after a nearby property owner complained about tents and tarps on his property. The property owner also told cops about an incident involving a knife and someone associated with Long’s truck. Police approached Long and told him he was violating the city’s 72-hour parking rule. Long told them his truck didn’t run well enough to move it. His lawyers say he was worried it could breakdown on the roadway and didn’t have anywhere else to legally park it. Soon, a parking enforcement officer ticketed the truck. Long did not move it. A week later, after a shift at his janitorial job cleaning CenturyLink Field, Long returned to find tarps and a few personal items where his truck had been.
According to court documents, Long then spent several hours in the rain trying to fashion a shelter out of the tarps. Eventually, he slept in a chair at a nearby shelter. With his truck gone, Long had lost work tools and most of his personal belongings like clothes, a sleeping bag, cooking supplies, and food. He eventually began sleeping outside in roughly the same place as he had previously been living in his truck, according to his lawyers. "It is hard to imagine a harsher punishment,” they wrote in a motion in municipal court last year. “Long is desperately poor, without housing, and working at temporary jobs. At 57, he is aging, but not of an age where he can access benefits like Social Security.”
Five days after the tow, Long went to the towing lot, where he learned he owed $577 plus a $27 per day fee. If he didn’t pay, the towing company could sell the truck. A municipal court judge set up a payment plan, allowing Long to pay $50 a month and get his truck back. Worried about getting towed again, Long parked the truck at a friend's property in Brier, but slept outside in the city to be close to work and services.
Long challenged the fines in municipal court and lost before appealing to Superior Court. Long had begun paying the fines under a payment plan in order to stop the tow company from selling his truck. The judge ruled Friday the city should return the portion of the fines he’s already paid.
Because of the Homestead Act, the ruling calls into question whether tow companies can really sell vehicles due to unpaid fines when the vehicle owner is homeless, LoGerfo said. But more immediately, it could make courts reconsider the fines charged on people whose vehicles are towed and impounded. Under the ruling, judges within King County will have to consider whether the fines required to get a vehicle out of impound are excessive “as they will be and are for many homeless people,” LoGerfo said.
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office has not yet said whether it plans to appeal the case. But in arguments before the court, the city made a sweeping slippery slope argument.
Siding with Long would create “a constitutional right to park one's car wherever one wants, for as long as one wants,” wrote Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan. The decision would mean “individuals will have the right to park wherever they want for as long as they want, and the city...will be unable to enforce any number of laws, including parking laws, against a certain class of individuals,” Ryan wrote.
The arguments echo a Vancouver case that began in 2015, when police pulled back the tarp under which a man was living and found meth. Lawyers for the man argued police had violated his constitutional rights because the tarp was his home and therefore protected from unlawful searches. Prosecutors made a slippery slope argument in that case, too. "Are we asking our officers to go get warrants now for every person in a park who throws a blanket over themselves?" Clark County senior deputy prosecuting attorney Rachael Probstfeld told me. "Like a cloak of invisibility? Like 'Oh this is my dwelling now'?"
Last year, the Washington Court of Appeals sided with the man in that case, ruling that his tarp was indeed a home. In agreeing that Long was covered by the Homestead Act, Judge Shaffer is making a similar acknowledgement here about vehicles.
A one-night count in 2017 found that about 20 percent of King County’s homeless population, or 2,300 people, live in vehicles.