The Washington Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday on a landmark case that could change how Seattle enforces parking violations for homeless people.
If the justices rule in favor of Steven Long, whose truck he lived in was impounded by Seattle, cities across Washington could potentially be forced to stop towing cars and RVs people are living in if they don’t present a hazard.
That could impact roughly 2,800 people living in vehicles in King County. They make up nearly a quarter of the total homeless population, according to the last homelessness census — although counting people who live in vehicles is much less precise than shelters.
It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will have a decision; the state Court of Appeals took six months to decide on the Long case last year.
Long was living in his 2000 GMC pickup in 2016 when he returned from work at CenturyLink Field and found his truck was gone. He had been warned by police four days earlier that he was violating a city rule that vehicles parked on public streets must move every 72 hours. But his truck couldn’t move due to mechanical issues, according to Long’s attorneys.
In 2018, a King County Superior Court judge ruled the city violated the state’s Homestead Act — a frontier-era law protecting homes from forced sale — by impounding the truck. The judge also said the $557 the city charged Long after the tow violated the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which protects against excessive fines. The city appealed, and last year the Washington Court of Appeals upheld the Homestead Act ruling but reversed the constitutional judgment.
Both Long and the city then appealed, and on Tuesday, state Supreme Court judges listened to arguments from Long and Seattle’s lawyers to decide whether to reverse the appellate court’s decision or let it stand.
Long’s lawyers argued that the impound of his truck was a warrantless seizure and had a bigger impact on him than a tow on someone with more money. Long’s sleeping bag and tools he needed for work were in the truck, and the impound forced him to sleep outside on the ground for 21 days in the same spot where his truck had been, getting sick in the process, according to his attorneys.
“Since 1205, the Magna Carta has said … you must take into account what the personal estate of the person will bear,” said Jim Lobsenz, an attorney with firm Carney Badley Spellman. “You do not treat billionaires the same as Steven Long.”
Robert Mitchell, an attorney representing Seattle, argued that the police warned Long days before the tow, that a magistrate worked with him on a payment plan so he could get his truck back, and that a ruling in Long’s favor would impede cities and the state from trying to remove empty vehicles because they would have to first figure out if someone was living in each one.
“Homelessness is a very serious issue,” Mitchell said. “The city devotes huge resources to this cause. Contorting the law to provide yet further relief than the magistrate gave Mr. Long in this case is not appropriate and it would have serious unintended consequences.”
Because of the pandemic, the city has stopped enforcing the 72-hour limit that Long violated, and as a result, cars and RVs like his have begun to accumulate and break down on Seattle’s curbs, according to the Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a founder of the city-funded Scofflaw Mitigation Team, one of the few groups focused specifically on helping people living in vehicles.
For months, Kirlin-Hackett has been warning that when laws go back into effect, Seattle will have a new flood from the RVs into tents and sidewalks, which have already seen an unsustainable rise in camping.
“Everybody keeps sidestepping the real issue here, which is that we had laws that worked well before we had vehicle residency,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “Our law is just being used as a sledgehammer. It’s heartbreaking.”