In a significant decision for homeless people in Washington who live in their vehicles, the state Supreme Court has largely agreed with lower courts in a Seattle case where a homeless man’s truck was towed in 2016.
In King County, where at last count one night last year there were more than 2,700 people living in cars and RVs, rules against parking on a city street for more than 72 hours were suspended at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Steven Long, a construction worker and handyman who’s been homeless since 2014, took the city to court after he came home one day from work and found the truck he’d been sleeping in was towed. He was fined more than $900 on top of the $44 parking violation. If he was unable to pay, his truck would be auctioned off by Lincoln Towing, the city contractor.
Long and his lawyers are celebrating the Supreme Court opinion, published Thursday, as a win. It affirmed lower court decisions that the truck was a home, and said that auctioning it off would have violated Washington’s frontier-era homestead act that forbids the state from forcibly selling someone’s home. It also determined the fines were excessive and the city should have figured out whether Long — who at the time made between $300 and $600 a month — could pay before leveling them.
“This decision will have wide reaching implications for how Mayors and City Councils from every Washington city respond to people living in their vehicles on public property,” Pete Holmes, Seattle’s city attorney, said in a statement. “We anticipate that elected policymakers will adjust their policies to align with today’s ruling, and our attorneys will advise them as they make their decisions.”
The new opinion was less harsh on the city of Seattle than previous lower court rulings. It found that since the auction didn’t happen, the city hadn’t actually violated the homestead act. It also ruled that while the city’s fines were unconstitutionally high, even when they lowered them to $557 on a payment plan, cities can still impose fines on homeless people living in their cars.
But Jim Lobsenz, Long’s lead lawyer on the case since its beginning, believes the decision leaves the city unable to enforce those fines on homeless people’s vehicles, since there is now little monetary incentive for the tow company if they can’t auction off a vehicle whose owner can’t pay.
“What are they going to do with it? Their tow lot will fill up with vehicles that can’t be redeemed,” Lobsenz said, hoping that it will end a decades-running “racket” The Seattle Times documented in 2019 known as “vehicle ranching.”
“It should stop this industry of constantly seizing and selling and reseizing and reselling and reauctioning and making money off of poor homeless people living in their vehicles,” Lobsenz said.
Long is still living in a different vehicle, according to Lobsenz; he was saving for first and last month’s rent at an apartment but COVID-19 affected the construction and handyman jobs he was working.
“I feel it’s great that I could help other people living in their vehicles,” Long said in a statement communicated through Lobsenz, “and this decision certainly will help a lot of people.”