Depriving someone of his truck when it serves as his home constitutes an excessive fine that is forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled.
In 2016, Steven Gregory Long, at the time a 56-year-old member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, parked his truck for more than 72 hours on land owned by Seattle, a violation of the Seattle Municipal Code. Long worked as a general tradesman and stored work tools along with personal effects in his vehicle and was living in the truck.
The violation occurred after Long was driving to an appointment when the truck began making grinding noises, according to the court.
On July 5, 2016, he parked in a gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle and the truck remained there for three months. On Oct. 5, 2016, police advised Long that he was violating the Seattle ordinance by parking in one location for more than 72 hours. Long said he told the police that he lived in the truck.
Later the same day, a parking enforcement officer posted a 72-hour notice on the truck, noting it would be impounded if not moved at least one city block. Long didn’t move the truck, and when he was away at work on Oct. 12, a city-contracted company towed his truck. Without it, Long had to sleep outside on the ground before seeking shelter nearby to escape the wind and rain.
Long had to live outdoors for the following three weeks, deprived of his tools, sleeping bag, and most of his possessions, which had been in the truck.
Long contested the ticket but after a time agreed to a payment plan to pay the city the costs of the impoundment. He argued before the Washington Supreme Court that the impoundment violated Washington’s homestead law and the excessive fines clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The court found it unconstitutionally excessive for Seattle to impound a homeless man’s truck and force him to reimburse the city almost $550 in towing and storage costs. It also held that vehicles in which people live are homes and can’t be sold at a public auction to pay their debts.
“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,” Justice Barbara Madsen wrote for the court.
“It’s a big step forward,” attorney Jim Lobsenz, who represented Long, told reporters. “The ruling says you have to take into account the financial resources of poor people before you impose these fines and costs.”
If cities or towing companies can’t sell vehicles serving as homes at auction, it makes little financial sense to impound the vehicles, he said. “What are they going to do with it? We won’t have towing companies profiting off the misery of people who can’t afford to pay.”
“Today’s decision is a victory for every Washingtonian,” added Bill Maurer, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) Washington office, who wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.
“The Washington Supreme Court decision recognizes that a $500 fine may not be excessive for a billionaire, but for someone who is so poor they need to live in their vehicle, it is unconstitutionally ruinous,” Maurer said in a statement.
IJ’s brief was joined by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Oregon Law Center, Equal Justice Under Law, the Policy Advocacy Clinic, and the MacArthur Justice Center.
“The Washington Supreme Court’s decision should act as a roadmap for every court considering how to implement the Excessive Fines Clause in the states,” Maurer said. “IJ and its allies will continue to push state and federal courts across the country to halt the imposition of excessive fines, especially those imposed on the most vulnerable among us.”
Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a statement that the court’s decision will have “wide-reaching implications for how Mayors and City Councils from every Washington city respond to people living in their vehicles on public property.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.