The Washington Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously held that a homeless person’s vehicle automatically qualifies as a homestead without the need for a declaration and that the impoundment of that vehicle and associated costs constitute excessive fines—a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution.
The case involves Steven Gregory Long, a 56-year-old Native American homeless man who worked as a general tradesman. In July 2016, Long parked his truck on a property owned by the city of Seattle and stayed there for three months in violation of the Seattle Municipal Code (“the Code” or “Code” or “SMC”) 11.72.440(B) , which prohibits parking for longer than 72 hours in a single location. As a consequence, a city-contracted towing company impounded Long’s truck and imposed a fine of approximately $950 for costs of the impoundment. The city also issued a $44 ticket.
Upon Long’s request for a hearing by a municipal court, the Magistrate found that Long parked illegally, but waived the $44 ticket and reduced the fine to approximately $550. The Magistrate drafted a payment plan that required Long to pay $50 per month. Long reluctantly agreed to this plan despite knowing he could not afford to make these payments and fearing that he could lose his truck at a public auction.
Long did not contest that he parked illegally, but filed an appeal under Rules for Appeal of Decisions of Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (“RALJ appeal”) against the fines. Essentially, Long’s RALJ appeal of the Magistrate’s order argued that the impoundment “violated the state and federal excessive fines clauses, substantive due process, and the homestead act.” Long’s motion for a summary judgment on this ground was previously denied by the Magistrate.
On the RALJ appeal, the superior court rejected the substantive due process claim but agreed with Long that the impoundment costs were unconstitutionally excessive under the Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution and that the payment plan violated the Homestead Act. However, the court concluded that the impoundment itself did not violate the Constitution.
Upon further appeal to the intermediate appellate court, Long’s Eighth Amendment argument was also rejected but the payment plan was nonetheless found invalid under the Homestead Act. In other words, the appellate court rejected Long’s claims that the fines were excessive, but still held that the payment plan was invalid. The appellate court additionally held Long failed to show the impoundment was unlawful pursuant to Article I, § 7 of the Washington state Constitution.
The Washington Supreme Court granted review on all three issues—i.e. Eighth Amendment, Article 1 § 7, and the Homestead Act. On the Homestead Act argument, the city stated that Long failed to file a declaration under RCW 6.13.040(1), which the city argues is a necessary procedure to qualify Long’s truck as a homestead. Long responded that he did not have to make any declaration because he occupied the truck as his principal residence, which qualifies the truck as a homestead automatically.
Referring to legislative history and additionally relying on the plain meaning of RCW 6.13.040(1), the Court agreed with Long stating that his truck was an “occupied personal property” under the statute and does not require a declaration because it automatically qualifies as a homestead. However, the Court added that Long’s Homestead Act claim was premature because Long got his truck back and the city had not moved to collect on Long’s debt—i.e. the fine and related costs of impoundment in accordance with the Magistrate’s payment plan.
On the state constitutional issue regarding unlawful impoundment under Article I, § 7, the Court rejected Long’s claims of privacy violations and the unreasonableness of the impoundment stating that the City had the authority to impound Long’s truck in enforcing its traffic regulations and that it was left with “no reasonable alternatives.” Referring to SMC 11.30.060, which states that a “vehicle . . . may be impounded after notice of such proposed impoundment has been securely attached,” the Court added: “A vehicle owner can object to the impoundment and payment of fees, but the homestead act is not a sword to prevent impoundment. Homestead protections are resolved upon enforcement, not issuance, of a parking ticket or impoundment of a vehicle.”
Finally, on the matter of the protection against excessive fines under the Eighth Amendment, the crux of the case, the Court took into consideration various factors such as Long’s earnings, his brief illness, his inability to find skilled employment, the self-sufficiency standard for a Seattle resident of $2,270 per month, and the large financial penalties faced by poor offenders who “routinely forgo basic needs, miss bills, and borrow at high interest rates.”
In concluding that the impoundment and associated costs “deprived Long of his means of living” and violated the excessive fines clause, Justice Barbara Madsen stated:
paying $50 per month when Long made at most $700, would leave him $650 with which to live…It is difficult to conceive how Long would be able to save money for an apartment and lift himself out of homelessness while paying the fine and affording the expenses of daily life. Seattle asserts that treating the payment plan as excessive punishment is to “trivialize the Eighth Amendment.” Yet to do what the city asks is to ignore the Eighth Amendment entirely. This we cannot do…While the Seattle City Council likely contemplated impoundment when enacting the parking ordinance at hand, it did not approve the related costs…the process of competitive bidding shows only that [the towing company] won the contract [with the City], it does not explain how the company determines towing and storage costs. Nor does the record contain this information. This is far from the congressionally approved maximum financial penalty.
Noting that a reasonable fine may still be constitutional and appropriate, the Court stated that an inquiry into an offender’s ability to pay is necessary and that Long sufficiently showed that he lacks the ability to pay the imposed fines, whether in lump sum or as part of a payment plan.
Chief Justice Steven González, concurring in the judgment, went a step further and wrote that he would have also ruled in Long’s favor in the state constitutional claim stating that its protections would be rendered meaningless if a “homeowner had to wait until their home is seized and a forced sale scheduled before invoking the act’s protections.”
Post the ruling, Long commented that it was great that he could help other people who also lived in their vehicles. Long’s Attorney, Jim Lobsenz, applauded the ruling as a “big step forward” stating that “The ruling says you have to take into account the financial resources of poor people before you impose these fines and costs.”