An affordable housing shortage is forcing many to seek shelter in vehicles. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

An affordable housing shortage is forcing many to seek shelter in vehicles. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

After ruling, police are cautious about towing vehicle-homes

A judge ruled that a man’s rights were violated when Seattle impounded the truck in which he lived.

EVERETT — The city of Everett is rethinking its towing policy as an affordable housing shortage pushes more people to live in their vehicles.

The shift, which frustrates some residents, was prompted by a King County Superior Court decision. A judge ruled a man’s rights were violated after Seattle impounded the truck in which he was living.

The Everett city prosecutor has advised the police department to be cautious handling parking complaints if a vehicle is being lived in, said Meghan Pembroke, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.

While King County Superior Court rulings don’t apply in Snohomish County, cities often look to case law for guidance on issues that play out around the region.

In 2016, Steven Long’s truck was towed and impounded in Seattle after it was parked on the street longer than the allowed 72 hours, court records show. Long was fined hundreds of dollars, and he was told the towing company could sell his truck if he didn’t pay. His personal belongings and the tools he used for work were inside the vehicle.

Long challenged the fine. In March, a judge ruled that the city’s actions, including placing a lien on the truck, violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits excessive fines, as well as Washington’s Homestead Act. The judge ordered the city to repay Long. Seattle plans to appeal the decision.

The case caused Everett police “to re-evaluate our approach to complaints involving people living in vehicles, with the overall intent of striking a balance between the judge’s ruling and the impact these situations have on our neighborhoods,” Pembroke wrote in an email.

“Towing remains an option if the individual is not receptive to services and the vehicle is negatively impacting the surrounding neighborhood, or if criminal activity is occurring,” she said.

A court decision has Everett rethinking its towing policy concerning vehicles that are being lived in. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

A court decision has Everett rethinking its towing policy concerning vehicles that are being lived in. (Lizz Giordano / The Herald)

As it stands, city policy prohibits people from parking vehicles in any one spot on the street for more than 72 hours. Motor homes are limited to 24 hours.

Ron Baker, who lives near Garfield Park, is tired of seeing the gray Ford minivan parked across the street from his house.

“It’s like they’re not enforcing the parking rules,” said Baker, 59, who says the vehicle has been there since mid-February.

Neighbors have seen people come and go from the van, which appears to have flat tires and a missing driver’s side window. A blanket blocks the back seat from view.

Baker said last week the city attached a red warning sticker to the windshield, declaring the van inoperable and abandoned.

“The city won’t move it because someone is living in it,” Baker said. “But where do we draw the line?”

At least 1,066 people in Snohomish County lack a permanent place to stay, according to the 2017 Point In Time count. A person is considered homeless if they do not have a fixed and regular home, which can include living in vehicles, shelters, tents, abandoned buildings and hotels, or staying with friends or relatives.

Job loss was the most frequent factor cited among those surveyed.

Ann LoGerfo, one of the lawyers who represented Long, wants the King County ruling to prompt other cities to reexamine their towing policies. She questions why someone would lose everything they own just because they parked somewhere too long.

“There needs to be some sort of connection to what you have done wrong and what happens to you when you do wrong,” LoGerfo said.

Other Snohomish County cities aren’t revisiting towing policies. Many said there hasn’t been a situation yet where the court case has come up. In Edmonds, however, the topic is sparking a conversation.

The ruling, while not precedent, does bring up a lot of issues the city needs to start thinking about, said Patricia Taraday with the Edmonds City Attorney’s Office.

“One can infer from the court’s ruling that this is very much a case-by-case analysis regarding what vehicles may be slated for towing,” she wrote in an email.

The question is, “Is this vehicle being used as a home?”

There may not be a simple answer, she said.

Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; egiordano@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @lizzgior.

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