It’s a case with potential far-reaching implications for the thousands of people living in their vehicles across the county, and those residents and business owners who are frustrated with their presence on city streets.

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The city of Seattle will appeal a King County judge’s ruling last week that could have far-reaching implications for the thousands of people sleeping in vehicles.

In a ruling on Friday, King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer found that, because a vehicle can be defined as someone’s home, imposing high towing fees on its owner, and attaching a lien on the vehicle to retrieve it, may violate the U.S. Constitution and state homestead act.

Deputy Seattle City Attorney John Schochet called the ruling “legally wrong and unworkable.” And while the Superior Court’s ruling doesn’t necessarily set a precedent, Schochet said the decision could still affect the city’s ability to enforce its parking laws.

Steven Long, 58, sued Seattle after a parking-enforcement officer ordered his pickup truck towed in October 2016 for violating a city law requiring vehicles be moved every 72 hours. Long had been living in the truck since he was evicted from an apartment two years earlier.

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The city eventually waived the parking ticket, but Long was left with $557 in impound fees. He appealed and lost his case in Municipal Court last May.

But Shaffer ruled in Long’s favor on two counts: that the lien put on the vehicle violated the state’s homestead act; and that the fees themselves violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on excessive fines.

More than 2,300 people were living in their vehicles according to King County’s 2017 point-in-time snapshot of homelessness, more than the number of people sleeping in tents. The 2018 count is expected to be released within months.

In court on Friday, Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan warned about that interpretation of the law, arguing it could put the city at risk of violating the state constitution anytime officials tow a vehicle because it’s not always clear someone is living in it.

In her ruling, Shaffer said it “would be ridiculous” to suggest the city can never impound vehicles or impose a fee for those services.

“But I don’t think it’s fair,” her ruling continued, “to say if the City does, gee, every registered owner has to pay so we never have to look at anybody’s individual (financial) circumstances.”

Jim Lobsenz, one of Long’s attorneys, predicted Seattle may stop towing vehicles they suspect someone is living in because the city won’t be able to collect the fines based on Shaffer’s ruling.

He compared the city’s 72-hour parking rule to outdated loitering laws, designed to keep people from remaining in any one place too long.
“Why? Because you’re up to no good?” Lobsenz said. “Because we feel uncomfortable with people that are just hanging around our neighborhood for more than three days.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the details of the judge’s ruling.