The Temple of Justice in Olympia where the Washington Supreme Court justices meet. Photographed on April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Temple of Justice in Olympia where the Washington Supreme Court justices meet. Photographed on April 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Court: Making homeless man pay truck’s towing cost excessive

State Supreme Court rules impounding homeless man’s truck and subsequent fines as unconstitutional.

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

SEATTLE — It was unconstitutionally excessive for Seattle to impound a homeless man’s truck and require him to reimburse the city nearly $550 in towing and storage costs, the Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The case has received wide attention amid the region’s housing crisis.

Steven Long was 56, working part time as a janitor and living in his old GMC pickup in 2016 when police had it towed because it was parked in an unused, city-owned, gravel lot for more than 72 hours.

He spent the next three weeks living outdoors, without his tools or his sleeping bag, which were in the vehicle. He had been trying to save for an apartment, but couldn’t work without his tools.

A city magistrate waived his $44 fine for the parking violation, but required Long to reimburse the city for some of the impoundment costs. The magistrate let him retrieve the truck just before it was to be sold at auction and put him on a $50-a-month payment plan.

In a unanimous decision, the court said the truck’s impoundment and the payment plan violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines, set out in the Eighth Amendment. The justices also found that Long’s truck constituted a homestead — and thus he would be entitled to protection from having it sold to pay his 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.

The court said it did not mean to imply that officials can never impound a vehicle, as cities and counties have an interest in keeping their streets clear. But it noted that “the offense of overstaying one’s welcome in a specific location is not particularly egregious,” and it said officials should inquire about a person’s ability to pay at impoundment hearings.

The case garnered attention from civil liberties groups as well as municipal organizations, including the International Municipal Lawyers Association.

“There is no reasonable or reliable process for municipalities to individually evaluate the owner of each vehicle subject to impoundment to attempt to determine that owner’s ability to pay,” the association wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief. “Moreover, the result would create a means to avoid parking regulations that would essentially allow persons to live, indefinitely, on municipal property with no recourse for the public.”

Seattle argued that while homelessness is an urgent problem, the city must be allowed to enforce its parking laws evenly. It noted that its parking laws are more lenient than those of many other cities.

The 72-hour rule is meant to ensure that people don’t store junked vehicles on public streets, Seattle’s lawyers said. The city has suspended enforcement of the law amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is instead collecting waste from RVs being used as homes.

The city also portrayed Long as obstinate, arguing that while Long claimed the truck was inoperable, he managed to drive it to a friend’s home 20 minutes away after picking it up from the tow company. He could have avoided having it impounded by simply moving it one block away during the week before it was towed, the city said.

But civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the National Homelessness Law Center, described requirements that people move their vehicles from street to street as part of “a long history of unconstitutional policies and practices that have primarily excluded and displaced Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color impacted by poverty.”

Long, who is Native American, was evicted from his apartment in 2014. He had parked his truck in the lot for more than three months.

Talk to us

More in Northwest

FILE - This October 2021, photo provided by Pfizer shows kid-size doses of its COVID-19 vaccine in Puurs, Belgium. The U.S. moved a step closer to expanding vaccinations for millions more children as a panel of government advisers on Tuesday, Oct. 26, endorsed kid-size doses of Pfizer's shots for 5- to 11-year-olds. (Pfizer via AP, File)
Pfizer vaccines for younger kids expected in state next week

The Health Department estimates about 30% of parents will seek shots immediately for children ages 5-11.

The North Cascades Highway is seen from the Washington Pass overlook on Oct. 11. (Sue Misao / The Herald)
State sets winter closing date for North Cascades Highway

The scenic road is expexted to close Nov. 15, or sooner if there is significant snow or ice.

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Nicholas Kristof speaks during the Goalkeepers Conference in New York. The former New York Times reporter and columnist announced Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2021 he is running for governor of Oregon, the state where he grew up on a rural farm. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Forner New York Times reporter is running for Oregon governor

Nicholas Kristof was raised in Yamhill, Oregon, and went on to become a foreign correspondent and columnist.

A sign that reads "No Jab" is held by a person taking part in a demonstration opposing mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates outside the Legislative Building, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that Washington state is expanding its vaccine mandate to include all public, charter and private school teachers and staff, as well as those working at the state's colleges and universities. Inslee also expanded the statewide indoor mask mandate in place for non-vaccinated individuals to include those who are vaccinated. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Federal judge rejects bid to stop Washington vaccine mandate

Workers say their civil rights are being violated by the requirement they get vaccinated to keep their jobs.

FILE - Kim Wyman, Washington state's Secretary of State, poses for a photo on Sept. 15, 2020, in Olympia, Wash. The Republican secretary of state who challenged former President Donald Trump's false claims of election fraud in 2020 is the frontrunner for a job heading the Biden administration's effort to protect future elections. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
GOP secretary of state resigns to take federal elections job

Kim Wyman, who rejects claims that the 2020 election was rigged, will join the Department of Homeland Security.

A Snohomish County PUD crew works to restore power in Mountlake Terrace on Sunday night. (Snohomish County PUD)
Tens of thousands without power in Pacific Northwest; 2 killed

More power outages are reported to be possible through Monday.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Senate Photographic Studio, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., right, poses with Tana Lin in Washington on June 9, 2021. The U.S. Senate on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021, confirmed civil rights attorney Tana Lin as a federal judge in Seattle. Lin, the president of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, will be the first former public defender and the first Asian American to serve as a federal judge in Washington state, said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray. (John Shinkle/U.S. Senate Photographic Studio via AP)
Senate confirms first Asian American as US judge in Seattle

Tana Lin is the president of the board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

In this May 31, 2019, photo provided by the Auburn Police Department via the Port of Seattle Police Department, Auburn police Officer Jeff Nelson, second from right, is shown at the scene where he shot and killed Jesse Sarey in a grocery store parking lot in Auburn, Wash. Although Nelson has been investigated in more than 60 use-of-force cases since 2012, he wasn't placed on the King County Prosecuting Attorney's "potential impeachment disclosure" list, or Brady List, which flags officers whose credibility is in question due to misconduct, until after he was charged in Sarey's killing. (Auburn Police Department via Port of Seattle Police Department via AP)
Tool for police reform rarely used by local prosecutors

The Brady Lists could shine a light on troubled officers, but many police unions work to hide them.

FILE - In this May 26, 2020, file photo, a sign at the headquarters for the Washington state Employment Security Department is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington state's rush to get unemployment benefits to residents who lost jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak left it vulnerable to criminals who made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Washington’s unemployment rate in September was 4.9%

Employers added 17,600 jobs last month, a 7.3% increase over August.

Most Read