A King County Superior Court Judge ruled this morning in favor of a Seattle resident who had his vehicle, which he used as his home, impounded by the City of Seattle and faced steep fines to get it back. King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer found that the fees imposed on Steven Long for towing and impounding his car were excessive fines, violating the constitution. The court also ruled that because Mr. Long used the vehicle as his home, and had informed the City of that fact at the impound hearing, requiring him to sign a payment plan to release his home violated the Washington State Homestead Act, RCW Ch. 6.13.
Alison Bilow of Columbia Legal Services and co-counsel Jim Lobsenz of Carney Badley Spellman, who represented Mr. Long, asked the court to dismiss the infraction and successfully argued that the city’s callous action violated the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the constitutionally mandated homestead protections under the Washington State Homestead Act. They argued that the impoundment and excessive fines constituted a grossly disproportionate punishment to the minor civil infraction. They additionally argued that taking Mr. Long’s home and refusing to release it until he agreed to enter into a payment plan for those excessive fees violated the Homestead Act.
The Superior Court judge agreed. She found that Mr. Long’s payment plan for the towing and impound fees was void, and she ordered the Municipal Court to refund to Mr. Long any payments he has already made on the plan.
“There is little societal interest in depriving Mr. Long of his only shelter, leaving him to continue living in public spaces under a tarp,” said Bilow, an attorney with the Basic Human Needs project at Columbia Legal Services. “The City of Seattle should not be in the practice of exacerbating the homelessness crisis by taking people’s homes. This important decision may have a far-reaching impact, providing relief for many other people in our community who are struggling and choosing to make vehicles their homes in an effort to survive this affordable housing crisis.”
Mr. Long, a 57-year-old Seattle resident, had been using his truck as a home since he was evicted in 2014 for late rental payments. In the summer of 2016, it broke down so he parked it out of the way in an unused gravel lot near Rainier Avenue and Dearborn. After returning home late one night from his job cleaning the stadium after a Seattle Sounders match, he discovered that the city had impounded his truck for parking for longer than 72 hours. Along with losing his home, he lost the tools of his trade in plumbing and construction and other essentials like a winter jacket, food, and money. He was without his only home and shelter for 21 days.
While the city didn’t charge him with a crime, they took his home – his most valuable asset – and left him to sleep in the same location on the ground under a tarp. He was only able to secure the release of his home weeks later by agreeing to fees and fines which are overwhelming to a person experiencing homelessness.
“As the Court noted, due to the rising cost of housing, more and more people are being forced to live in cars and boats,” said Lobsenz, an attorney with Carney Badley Spellman. “The Washington Constitution and the Washington Homestead Act protect people who live in conventional houses from the attachment of their homes as security for a debt. We are pleased by the Superior Court’s decision that recognizes that “houseless” people who are forced to live in their vehicles are a protected by our state laws from the attachment of their homes, and from excessive fines imposed upon them as a penalty for a minor parking infraction.”
“It’s great to see justice work,” said Mr. Long, after the ruling.
This case has implications for others without means who aren’t able to afford stable housing and turn to using their vehicles as their homes. Seattle municipal judges should follow this ruling. The Superior Court has made it clear that the fees and fines imposed for an impound must not be excessive for an individual experiencing homelessness, and vehicles used as homes may not be subject to forced sale to pay a towing debt.