A Washington State Court of Appeals panel of three judges heard arguments Thursday morning in the case of a homeless man whose truck was impounded by the city of Seattle, setting off a debate about the rights of people living in their vehicles.
In Washington state and King County in particular, where an estimated 2,100 people sleep in a vehicle every night, a patchwork of local laws govern how often they have to move and where. Lawyers arguing against the city say a ruling in their favor would help people already struggling under financial burdens; the city of Seattle believes it would hamper their efforts to enforce parking laws.
The case centers around Steven Long, 60, a construction worker who returned from work one day in fall 2016 to find the truck he’d been living in gone. He had parked the truck in an unused gravel lot near the Interstate 90 and Interstate 5 interchange.
Police warned Long that the truck would be towed if it wasn’t moved within 72 hours — a limit outlined in a city ordinance — but he said the truck was inoperable; after the city waited four days, they towed and impounded the vehicle. Long had to pay $557 in impound fees.
“I felt I was wrongly done by it,” Long said in an interview with The Seattle Times. He went to Columbia Legal Services, which represents low-income clients. For a home, he built a lean-to using a tarp, setting it up where he had been parking.
Long sued the city but lost in Seattle Municipal Court in May 2017. He appealed, and in March 2018 King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer ruled his favor. The city of Seattle appealed to state court.
The appeals court judges have been asked to decide the case on two main questions: Does fining someone living in their vehicle violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment barring “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishments;” and does attaching an impound fee to the vehicle, refusing to release the truck until Long entered into a payment plan to address the fees, violate Washington state’s Homestead Act, a frontier-era law that protects homes from being easily seized and forcibly sold?
The city, represented by corporate law firm K&L Gates, is arguing that Long didn’t have to pay anything to get his truck out of impound, because he had the option of setting up a payment plan instead, and that the city shouldn’t be forced to determine whether someone is living in a vehicle before they can impound it.
“If Mr. Long were right about the Homestead Act, he could pitch a tent in which he claimed to homestead at midfield on a public playfield, and the city would be powerless to remove it,” said Robert Mitchell, one of the attorneys representing the city during Thursday’s arguments.
Long’s lawyers argue that not only was Long forced by the seizure of his vehicle to sleep outside, but the fines amount to the city punishing him for being homeless.
“Cities all over Washington and all over the country are doing this — they’re towing people’s homes away,” Jim Lobsenz, an attorney for Carney Badley Spellman, said to the judges. “Surely it’s punitive to take away a man’s home because of a parking violation.”
Long still lives in a truck, now with a trailer attached, but outside Seattle now. He’s working a full-time carpentry job in construction.
“[I’m] hoping for a resolution for all the people out there living homeless,” Long said. “It’s such a mess — I’ve seen families crammed into vehicles, crammed into four-seater cars, three children, a man and a woman.”
A ruling is expected within six months.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated which firm attorney Jim Lobsenz works for. Lobsenz is an attorney with Seattle firm Carney Badley Spellman.