Last year, police towed an illegally parked truck that also served as one Seattle man’s home. Now he’s suing.
A homeless man in Seattle has filed a legal challenge against Seattle, saying city police violated his rights by impounding the truck he had lived in since 2014.
If successful, the challenge could have broader implications for how the city deals with people living in vehicles.
Steven Long, 57, said his 2000 GMC pickup was parked on a city-owned gravel lot near Interstate 5 and Dearborn Street South when police in October slapped a citation on it and gave him 72 hours to relocate.
Long had parked the truck there in June when it broke down, and lived uneventfully for about three months, according to the lawsuit.
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When he returned from working a janitor shift at Century Link Field days later, he found the truck had been towed, along with the tools and personal belongings inside.
According to court documents, Long spent several hours that evening unsuccessfully trying to construct a makeshift shelter with a tarp and other scrap materials. He eventually gave up and spent the night sleeping in a chair at a nearby shelter.
Long was without his truck for 22 days, the lawsuit says. A magistrate later waived a significant portion of the $576 towing fees and the city did the same for the $44 citation. But by impounding the truck, authorities also deprived Long of his home, according to the court documents.
Long’s Columbia Legal Services attorneys argue the city’s impound of the truck was unconstitutional, and they seek to have the citation tossed and the towing fees returned.
They say that given Long’s poverty, the fine issued by the city violates state provisions against excessive punishment, and that despite being parked illegally the truck is protected from seizure by state laws.
Long’s attorneys argue that the state’s homestead provision can be viewed broadly as a protection of any nontraditional residence, including boats, vehicles and tents.
Long’s lawyers also claim that by citing and then later towing Long’s truck, police acted indifferently to his safety.
Seattle ordinances require that any vehicle reported as improperly parked must be moved at least one block within 72 hours.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan disputed Long’s claims, saying during a Thursday hearing in Seattle Municipal Court that police gave Long additional time beyond the 72 hours to move his belongings.
Columbia Legal Services attorney Yurij Rudensky said a favorable ruling could force city officials to review policies that allow for the impound of vehicles that double as a primary residence for homeless people.
“The city has a significant interest in being able to control traffic and parking,” he said. “… But you’re talking about someone’s continued access to their own resource that provides them relative shelter and safety. Everything flows from that.”
The lawsuit comes amid the city’s continued struggle to provide outreach to people living in their vehicles. According to last year’s One Night County of the region’s homeless, there are an estimated 900 people living inside vehicles in Seattle. Some congregate in makeshift camps, while others like Long pick lonely areas to reside in hope of not being noticed.
This year’s count results haven’t yet been released, but the numbers are expected to rise.
In 2016, the city announced a plan to create several “safe-lots,” where people living inside their vehicles could park legally. But the plan later collapsed after costs began to exceed the budget, according to city officials.
Meg Olberding, spokeswoman for the Seattle Human Services Department, said the city has no immediate plan to revive the program.
A Montana native, Long moved to Seattle in 1988. In subsequent years, Long said, he’s watched his wages drop and his rent rise. In 2014, he was evicted from his Seattle apartment. “I’ve been living in the truck ever since,” he said.
Long said he attempted to secure a spot in one of the safe lots while they were open, but they were always full.
Long said his truck is now parked at a friend’s home in Snohomish County. He has set up camp at the same lot where the truck was towed.
A ruling on Long’s motion for summary judgment could come within a month.