The state court of appeals announced a decision Monday in a case that could have far-reaching ramifications for the thousands of people in Washington who live in their cars.

The decision could discourage cities from towing vehicles of homeless people who live in them, according to Jim Lobsenz, a lawyer for the plaintiff. It also comes as Seattle, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has stopped towing and impounding vehicles people are living in.

The case involves Steven Long, a construction worker who sued the city of Seattle after returning from work one day in 2016 to find the truck he’d been living in had been towed; he was ordered to pay $557 in impound fees.

On Monday, a three-judge panel for the Washington State Court of Appeals sided with a lower court and affirmed the city had violated the Homestead Act, a frontier-era state law that protects properties from forced sale. 

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

But the appeals court also reversed part of the ruling from King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer, determining that the $557 in impound fees did not violate the Constitution’s prohibition of excessive fines.

“The law requires us to construe the Homestead Act broadly in favor of the homeowner, so that it may achieve its purpose of protecting homes,” Judge John Chun wrote in a published opinion. “And the fees are not excessive because the impoundment costs repay the City’s agent, Lincoln Towing, for the costs of towing the vehicle based on contract.”

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This potentially means a towing company can take a person’s vehicle, but they can’t require payment or payment plans before giving it back, according to Lobsenz, an attorney for Seattle firm Carney Badley Spellman. They can send a homeless person a fine later, but the chances of getting that paid back are low, Lobsenz said, which could discourage cities and towing companies from taking action in the first place.

“I think they’re going to leave homeless people alone,” Lobsenz said. “Because otherwise they’re going to have to give their homes right back.”

The city hasn’t announced yet whether it intends to appeal the decision.

“We are still digesting the opinion, determining its practical implications for the City, and evaluating possible next steps,” a spokesperson for the city attorney wrote in an email.

Lobsenz said he believes both sides will ask for further review and the case will end up in Washington Supreme Court.

But because Seattle’s current stance has been to hold off on towing and impounding vehicles so people living in them can follow the state’s stay-at-home order, the city might not appeal further, said the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, director of Seattle’s Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness, who has advocated for years on behalf of people living in vehicles.

“It would be strange to me if Seattle goes back and defends itself on its prior-to-the-pandemic rules,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “Because I don’t think they know what the rules are going to be when this pandemic passes.”