Washington state justices weigh towing of vehicles of homeless

Lawyers for a man forced to sleep outside after Seattle police had the truck he was living in towed asked the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday to declare such impoundments unlawful.

Steven Long was working part-time as a janitor at CenturyLink Field and living in his old GMC pickup in 2016 when police warned him it was illegal to park in the city-owned, gravel lot for more than 72 hours.

They gave him extra time because he told them he needed to obtain parts for the vehicle, but when he failed to move it within a week, the truck, which contained his tools, sleeping bag and other belongings, was impounded.

He spent the next three weeks living outdoors amid the autumn rain and windstorms of the Pacific Northwest. He persuaded a city magistrate to waive his $44 fine for the parking violation, but he was required to reimburse the city $547 for part of the towing and vehicle storage costs. The magistrate allowed him to retrieve the truck just before it was to be sold at auction and put him on a $50-a-month payment plan.

His attorneys, James Lobsenz and Alison Bilow, told the justices Thursday that the city’s actions violated Long’s privacy rights under the state Constitution; protections against excessive fines; and state homestead law, which generally prohibits the forced sale of someone’s home to pay off debt.

"He was without his home and every conceivable imaginable possession that he had for 21 days," Lobsenz said.

Amid the severe homelessness crisis in the region, the case has garnered attention from civil liberties groups as well as municipal organizations, including the International Municipal Lawyers Association, who filed friend-of-the-court briefs. Seattle argues that while homelessness is an urgent problem, it must be allowed to enforce its parking laws evenly.

"There is no reasonable or reliable process for municipalities to individually evaluate the owner of each vehicle subject to impoundment to attempt to determine that owner’s ability to pay," the municipal lawyers group wrote. "Moreover, the result would create a means to avoid parking regulations that would essentially allow persons to live, indefinitely, on municipal property with no recourse for the public."

The city also portrayed Long, 61, as obstinate in not moving the truck: While he claimed it was inoperable, he managed to drive it to a friend’s home 20 minutes away after picking it up from the tow company. He could have avoided having it impounded by simply moving it one block away during the week before it was towed.

But civil liberties organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and the National Homelessness Law Center, described such requirements that people move their vehicles from street to street as part of "a long history of unconstitutional policies and practices that have primarily excluded and displaced Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color impacted by poverty."

Long, who is Native American, was evicted from his apartment in 2014 and had parked his truck in the lot for more than three months.

"As more and more Washingtonians are unable to pay for brick-and-mortar housing, it is crucial that the Court affirm there is no income requirement to live in this state and that the government cannot use the guise of the law to eject those it deems ‘undesirable’ from City boundaries," they wrote.

Seattle rejected such assertions, saying it devotes immense resources to addressing homelessness and that the 72-hour parking rule has nothing to do with "banishing" undesirables. The law is about ensuring people don’t store junked or abandoned vehicles on city streets, it said.

In fact, the city argued, its laws are far more permissive than those of many other jurisdictions: It does not ban people from living in their cars, but merely requires them to follow parking regulations like everyone else. The City Council expanded the parking limit from one day to three days on city streets to give drivers more flexibility, it said.

And amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Seattle has stopped enforcing the law and is instead collecting waste from RVs being used as residences on streets.

Lobsenz argued that under the state Constitution’s privacy protections, the city could not impound a vehicle — whether it’s used as a home or not — without a warrant unless certain exceptions applied, including that it was blocking traffic or posing a public health or safety risk. Long’s truck, parked in an unused, city-owned lot near a homelessness services center, generated no problems whatsoever for the community at large, he said.

The city argued that a fine cannot be considered excessive when it merely recoups the cost of enforcement, such as towing and storage. Further, it said, homestead law does not apply to the case.

The justices did not indicate when they would rule.