State Supreme Court issues big ruling on impounding homeless person’s lived-in vehicle

This morning the Washington State Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the case of City of Seattle vs. Long, in which the city impounded the truck that a homeless man was living in and that was parked illegally on public property, and then charged him $950 to cover the towing company’s fees (later reduced to $550 by a magistrate).

By the time the case had reached the state Supreme Court, it had been whittled down to two issues:

  1. Does the state Homestead Act shield Long from having his vehicle impounded and/or liens attached to it because it is his primary residence?
  2. Is the $550 charge an “excessive fine” prohibited by both the U.S. and Washington Constitutions?

Lower courts had ruled on both of these issues, but the state Supreme Court today had the final word — and put its own spin on the answers.

The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act, passed in various forms by multiple states, is intended to shield a property that a head of household owns and occupies from being seized in payment an accrued debt and thus leaving the household homeless. The question at hand is what happens when a person is living in a vehicle: does that become their “homestead”? The Court today said yes, it does. There was some back-and-forth in the case about the nuances of that, since the Homestead Act says that an occupied property is automatically a person’s homestead, but someone who isn’t occupying a property they own can protect a certain amount of other personal property — but they need to affirmatively declare that other property to be their homestead. The city had argued that Long hadn’t declared his vehicle to be his homestead so the Homestead Act didn’t apply; the Court clarified that because he was occupying it, it automatically became his homestead without a declaration.

That was a major win for Long, and for the thousands of people in Washington living in their cars, trucks, vans and RVs. But at the same time, the Court made several other important clarifications to how the Homestead Act applies in Long’s circumstances that place significant limits:

  • It distinguished between impounding a vehicle and a debt that might accrue afterwards. Long’s vehicle was impounded because of a civil offense: it was parked illegally, and the Seattle Municipal Code allows for impounding vehicles in such circumstances. But the Homestead Act doesn’t provide protection against impoundment; it only provides protection against debts being attached to a person’s homestead. Nothing in today’s ruling prevents the city from impounding illegally parked vehicles, nor does it establish any sort of “right to camp” on public property.
  • What it does do, however, is protect an individual from the city trying to collect on a debt incurred because of an impounded vehicle by attaching a lien to the vehicle and/or forcing a sale of the vehicle to pay the debt.
  • It made clear that debts are incurred and determined at adjudication by a court, and as such the Homestead Act doesn’t protect Long from the towing and storage costs until the city tries to collect on the debt. And since the city never tried to collect on the debt, the Homestead Act can’t yet be invoked and the city didn’t violate it (as a lower court had ruled). Part of the reason it must be adjudicated in court is because the Homestead Act only shields a person’s homestead up to a certain limited value; courts need to determine not only the value of the debt, but the value of the homestead and whether there is value exceeding that limit that a lien could still attach to.
  • The Homestead Act is a “shield” against debts, not a “sword” to proactively protect against impoundment; its application comes upon enforcement in court, and not when a parking ticket is issued or a vehicle is impounded.

Excessive Fines

The court’s ruling this morning delved into the history of prohibitions on “excessive fines,” dating back to the Magna Carta, and pointing out that despite the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishments, the U.S. Supreme Court largely ignored the “excessive fines” provision for two centuries. But there are three important Supreme Court precedents that read on this case:

  • Austin (1993), which held that the prohibition also includes civil fines and not just criminal penalties;
  • Bajakajian (1998), which held that “proportionality” to the offense is the standard forĀ  judging whether a fine is “excessive”;
  • Timbs (2019), which held that the Eighth Amendment’s provisions apply to states as well through the application of the Fourteenth Amendment. In this case it’s a bit of a non-issue, since the Washington Constitution contains nearly the exact same prohibition as the Eighth Amendment.

This morning’s ruling then boils it down to two questions: is it a “fine,” and if so is it “excessive”?

Case law says that “fines” must be at least partially punitive. The city argued that it is simply recovering the towing and storage costs, not issuing a monetary fine for the offense. But the court disagreed. It noted that the impoundment itself, as laid out in the Seattle Municipal Code, is a penalty, and that the costs don’t occur in isolation: they are the direct result of the punitive impoundment penalty.

The city also tried arguing that a penalty must be permanent, citing a decision from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals along those lines. But the justices disagreed, finding that a temporary deprivation may still be partially punitive — and noting that it is not bound by the decisions of the 8th Circuit.

Thus: impounding Long’s truck and assessing the costs back on him was partially punitive and a “fine.”

As to whether it was excessive: the court began by observing that the U.S. Supreme Court has never laid out an explicit test for proportionality, which has led to a “patchwork” of different tests adopted by the different circuit courts. The U.S. Supreme Court has only said that the fine must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense.

In today’s ruling the justices adopted the four-part test used by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (which technically they are not bound to follow either):

  1. the nature and extent of the crime;
  2. whether the violation was related to other illegal activities;
  3. the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation; and
  4. the extent of the harm caused.

But then — and this is where today’s ruling gets most interesting — they added their own fifth part to the test: consideration of the person’s ability to pay. Again, the justices traced the issue of whether to consider it back to the Magna Carta and English common law, and rulings by state Supreme Courts in Virginia (1799), Florida (1887), and Colorado (2019). And while the U.S. Supreme Court has never explicitly weighed in on the question, the justices interpreted adjacent remarks in existing case law to support the belief that the central tenet of the excessive fines clause is “to protect individuals against fines so oppressive as to deprive them of their livelihood.”

The justices found the five-part test tipped well in favor of Long. The underlying offense is a minor parking infraction with a $44 fine (that the lower court waived entirely). Adding to the belief that it was minor is the fact that the city suspended its enforcement during the COVID emergency. There was no evidence that Long was involved in other illegal activities, there were no other penalties, and the harm was minimal. Also, whereas case law has assumed the constitutionality of fines established legislatively, the towing and storage costs were instead established by a contract between the city and the towing company — and the city did not provide any evidence on how the towing company determined its costs. On the other hand Long, whose income at the time was in the range of $300 to $600 per month, had little ability to pay a $550 fine, even under the $50 per month payment plan the lower court put in place. Forcing him to pay the fine would assuredly deprive him of his means of living, the court found.

The city, and one of the amicus parties supporting the city, had argued that finding this to be an excessive fine would put parking enforcement officers in the position of determining how much somoene was able to pay before issuing a ticket or impounding a vehicle. But the court answered that in the same way it answered concerns about the Homestead Act: by pointing out that this was a determination to be made in court at an impoundment hearing (which under city law offenders are entitled to), and not at the time a ticket is being issued.

With that, the court found that the $550 fine was unconstitutionally excessive. It hedged by saying that a “reasonable fine” may still be constitutional and applicable, but this one, in Long’s circumstances, was not.

To sum up the major parts of the ruling today:

  • The Homestead Act provides limited protection from debts being attached to someone’s vehicle when they are currently living in that vehicle.
  • That protection is applied by the courts when a debt is being enforced.
  • When considering whether a fine is excessive, courts must consider a person’s ability to pay.
  • The city technically didn’t violate the Homestead Act because it never tried to collect on Long’s debt.
  • The city can still impound illegally parked vehicles, including those that people are living in — but there are limits to the fines it can assess for towing and storage fees.

What the ruling very carefully didn’t say is also important here. It did not grant a “right to camp” on public property. Perhaps more notably, nowhere in the ruling does it say that the vehicle is the person’s “house” or “home.” If it had, it would have conferred rights under the state Constitution, which says under Article I Section 7: (my emphasis)

No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.

And under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which says:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Today’s ruling won’t be an earth-shattering change for the thousands of people living in vehicles here.It makes their situation a tiny bit less precarious in that illegally parking their vehicle might still get it impounded but won’t end up with it being sold off to cover the debt incurred from towing it away.

On the other hand, the requirement that courts must consider a person’s ability to pay when determining whether a fine is excessive will have broad and deep impacts, and may end up a regular part of proceedings in Seattle Municipal Court — and in municipal courts across the state.

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  1. How will this ruling impact the 72 hour parking rule? The city claimed to be waiting on this ruling to decide whether or not to return to enforcement of 72 hours.

  2. Differing punishment based on the offender’s net worth? So much for equal protection of the law.

    1. No, differing punishmnent based upon ability to pay, which is different from net worth. There are lots of people with good living wage jobs that have zero net worth — they’re just spending their entire paycheck every month. And plenty of people with mortgages have a negative net worth, but could still manage to pay a $550 parking ticket.

      I would also remind you that courts hand out differential punishments all the time, often showing leniency to “upstanding members of society” (which through some coincidence usually turns out to be rich white guys). If you’re going to argue that this is an equal protection issue, be prepared to go fix that too.

  3. “We can’t fix this injustice until we fix every other injustice first”. Nah, we can do both.
    This idea puts faceless unaccountable accountants in charge of dispensing “justice” because the definition of “ability to pay” is wholly subjective. Additionally In this case the guy is getting a very special privilege; he has an asset, his vehicle, that is being protected as a household and he cannot be forced to sell to cover the fine it is his obligation to pay. He is unpunishable, at least as far as fines are concerned. Someone else who has both a home and a vehicle, even if their net each month is as low as this guy’s, can be forced to sell their vehicle and enjoy no such privilege.

    1. Don’t put words in my mouth.

      No, it puts judges in charge of dispensing justice. Judges already do that. The state Supreme Court was very clear that the Homestead Act is applied by the court, as is the factoring in of ability to pay.

      And it’s not a special privilege. The Homestead Act also applies to you and your homestead, and me and mine. It was written for exactly this purpose: to prevent the attachment of debts from forcing someone into homelessness. If you don’t like the policy, go yell at the state Legislature, who passed it and can repeal or amend it.

  4. Of course it’s an unearned privilege: “Any right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person or group beyond the advantages of most.” The original guy in this can commit a particular crime with impunity, most of the rest of us cannot commit that same crime with the same impunity. It’s a blatant equal protection clause crisis. So the shortest course is to avoid the legislature that came up with the unconstitutional law in the first place by solving this at the federal level in a court. The ultimate ideal we should all strive for is one law commonly developed, applied equally, to us all. No more special privileges or sacred populations.

    1. No, he can’t commit it with impunity. The city can still tow his car. It just can’t assess a fine for that in excess of his ability to pay the fine.

  5. not necessarily. One’s “homestead” is a legal “term of art” meaning the equity one has in their home that is below the amount that would be exempt from judgements (usually between $50k-250k depending on state and age/disability). One’s car, even if not one’s home, also can be an “exempt” asset (usually if one’s only one and it’s value is below $1500-2500 depending on the state one lives in).

    So, it seems to me by this court’s reasoning, if one’s total assets are beneath the amount designated by one’s state/circumstances deemed to be exempt from judicial levy then one could serve a declaration of exemption with the officer (or court) and it would also be “hands off” that.

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