The City Prosecutor of Seattle has announced his office will appeal a March 2, 2018 court ruling in favor of a Seattle resident whose truck, which he used as his home, was impounded by the City. Steven Long, the defendant, also faced steep fines to recover it.
If left standing, the ruling will likely prove to be a ground-breaking decision regarding the use of a motor vehicle as a home in the state of Washington.
The decision by King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer reversed a lower court ruling in the prosecution’s favor.
According to Seattle Deputy City Attorney John Schochet, the appeal will be sometime in March. “We are appealing the ruling because we believe it was legally wrong and would be unworkable in the long run,” he wrote in an email to Bigger Law Firm. While Schochet admitted it is legal for a person to live in their vehicle in Washington, per the state’s homestead law specifically permitting it, people must “comply with all applicable laws, e.g., parking rules, waste disposal.”
At issue is not so much the legality of whether it was permissible for Long to use his truck as his domicile, but rather that he did not move it every 72 hours, as required by law.
Long returned to his parked vehicle following his shift as a cleaner at CenturyLink Field after a Seattle Sounders’ game to discover his truck was gone. He had been living in his 2000 GMC pickup truck, parked on a side street, but the city of Seattle towed it because Long had violated a city law requiring vehicles be moved every 72 hours. Long sued the city, arguing his constitutional rights had been violated in that the towing and storage fees were excessive. He also argued that when the city towed his vehicle without his permission, they were levying a penalty against his domicile, which he said was another infringement on his constitutional rights.
Homeless advocates hailed Judge Shaffer’s ruling, saying it could have broad implications on the crisis of homelessness.
Jim Lobsenz, a partner with the Seattle law firm of Carney Badley Spellman who focuses his practice on constitutional and appellate litigation, represented Long pro bono along with an attorney from Seattle’s Columbia Legal Services. He said he took the case because “there are lots of homeless people [in Seattle] and I think it’s ridiculous people living in their cars have their homes taken away from them by the city.”
Judge Shaffer ruled the city’s impoundment of Long’s vehicle violated the state’s Homestead Act, a frontier-era law protecting properties from forced sale, because he was using it as his home. Long’s truck was slated to be sold had he not entered into a monthly payment plan with the city, which they required in order to return the car to him.
Not only did Lobsenz say he was attracted to the case due to its constitutional implications, he was also intrigued by the fact it raised issues never before litigated.
“All the issues are totally brand new,” he said.
Lobsenz said he has every intention to remain on the case as long as Long will keep him, noting he does not take on cases and then walk away. He fully expects the case to wind its way to the Washington Supreme Court.
According to Lobsenz, “It’s important to realize there were three different Constitutional issues in this case.” They are, he argued:
- An excessive fine, which violates the 8th Amendment
- Based on Washington State’s requirement there be a homestead exemption on the truck since it was Long’s home, it could not be hauled away and then have liens placed against it, as the city did
- It is a substantive due process infraction to knowingly create a dangerous situation by taking someone’s home and exposing them to the outside elements
Lobsenz and his co-counsel prevailed on the first two arguments but lost on the third, which surprised him. “In the winter of 2017-2018, the count of people found dead on our streets is over 90. That’s a serious problem. It's January and February and it’s 35 degrees out, many people will die,” he said.
However, argued Schochet, the entire situation could have been avoided had Long moved the truck from space to space within the prescribed amount of time. For his part, Long claimed the vehicle was not operable and could not be moved.
“It was a 72 hour violation – he received warnings to move (it) before the vehicle was towed,” said Schochet.