Under Seattle’s Traffic Code, a vehicle may not be parked on a city street for more than 72 hours.[1] Violators face a $44.00 fine, towing, and impoundment of their vehicles. The 72-hour parking rule was suspended in March 2020 because of COVID-19, and the city resumed enforcement in October 2021.[2] This suspension, coupled with an increase in vehicle residency due to the city’s homelessness crisis, has led to a substantial increase in the number of vehicles permanently parked on the streets.

Washington’s Homestead Act prevents unsecured creditors from seizing the property that a person uses as their home in order to satisfy a debt. The “homestead” consists of real or personal property that the owner or a dependent of the owner uses as a residence.[3] When the homestead is seized by unsecured creditors and sold to satisfy a debt, the Homestead Act exempts a portion of the proceeds so that the owner may use the funds to purchase a new homestead.[4]

In City of Seattle v. Long, the Supreme Court of Washington held that:

  1. Washington’s Homestead Act automatically protects personal property occupied as a principal residence, and no declaration that the personal property is a residence is required;[5]
  2. Homestead Act claims on vehicles occupied as a principal residence are premature when the city has not threatened to sell the vehicle to collect impoundment fees;[6]
  3. Impoundment and associated costs are fines, and that an ability to pay inquiry is necessary to determine if they violate the excessive fines clause;[7] and
  4. While the payment plan imposed on Long was excessive, a reasonable fine may still be constitutional.[8]

Defendant Steven Long had been living in his truck while saving money for an apartment.[9] He worked as a general tradesman making between $400.00 and $700.00 per month, which included the $100.00 he earned per month for being a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation.[10] On July 5, 2016, Long’s truck broke down in a gravel lot owned by the City of Seattle.[11] Long’s truck remained parked on the lot for the next three months, and he continued to live in it.[12]

On October 5, 2016, Seattle police told Long that he was violating the 72-hour parking law by having his truck parked on the city lot, and that he would need to move his truck by at least one block to avoid being towed.[13] When Long failed to move his truck, it was towed by a city-contracted towing company.[14] After his truck was towed, Long slept outside.[15]

Additionally, Long received a $44.00 parking ticket; he contested it. At the hearing, the magistrate found that Long had parked illegally but decided to waive the $44.00 ticket and reduce the impoundment charges from $946.61 to $547.12.[16] To further assist Long, the magistrate approved a payment plan for the impoundment charges under which he would pay $50.00 per month until the $547.12 was paid in full; then he could retrieve his truck.[17]

Though Long never disputed that he had parked illegally, he appealed the magistrate’s ruling permitting the impoundment of his car on three grounds. First, he argued the impoundment violated the state and federal constitutions’ prohibitions of excessive fines.[18] Second, he argued the impoundment violated his right to substantive due process.[19] Third, he argued the impoundment violated the Homestead Act.[20] The superior court agreed that the impoundment was illegal based on his first and third claims but rejected his substantive due process claim.[21] The appellate court agreed based on the Homestead Act argument alone.[22]

The Washington State Supreme Court considered two main issues on appeal: First, does the homestead exemption automatically attach to personal property occupied as a principal residence?[23] Second, does the $547.12 impoundment cost constitute an excessive fine in violation of the Eighth Amendment?

The city contended that the Homestead Act did not apply to the impoundment of Long’s truck because he did not file a declaration stating that his truck was his primary residence.[24] However, the court examined the plain meaning of the statute and held that the legislature intended occupied personal property to be automatically protected as a homestead, requiring a declaration only for unoccupied personal property.[25] However, the court also held that Long’s Homestead Act argument was premature because the city was not selling Long’s truck to satisfy the $547.12 he owed for impoundment charges, as in a typical debt-collection case; the city was merely holding the truck until Long could pay the charges.[26]

The parties disputed whether impoundment charges constituted a fine triggering an Eighth Amendment analysis. While the city argued that the charges were not a fine because impoundment was not permanent, Long argued that the charges were a fine because they were imposed as a penalty for violating the 72-hour parking law.[27] The court held that because the impoundment temporarily deprived Long of his truck, the associated costs were partially punitive and therefore constituted a fine.[28]

In determining whether the impoundment costs were an excessive fine, the court adopted the Ninth Circuit’s four factor test for gross disproportionality: 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.[29] The court also added a fifth factor to this analysis: the person’s ability to pay the fine.[30]

Applying this test to Long’s case, the court reasoned that the first factor weighed in favor of a finding of excessiveness because violating the city’s 72-hour parking rule is not “particularly egregious,” especially considering that the rule was later suspended in March 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.[31] Likewise, with respect to the fourth factor, the extent of the harm caused was minimal because Long was not parked in a residential neighborhood, nor was he blocking or obstructing a roadway.[32] The harm to the city of having to pay the costs of impoundment upfront did not affect the court’s proportionality determination.[33] Finally, the court considered the additional fifth factor and found that because Long only made $700.00 in his best months, and the impoundment of his truck deprived him of his tools and place to sleep, he had no reasonable ability to pay $547.12 to retrieve the truck.[34] A balancing of these five factors led the court to rule that the impoundment charges were unconstitutionally excessive.

Justice Steven Gonzalez concurred in the holding that Long’s truck qualified as a homestead because he clearly lived in it. However, Gonzalez argued that Long’s homestead claim was not premature because the Homestead Act protects vehicles used as primary residences from being towed in the first place, not just from being subject to forced sale.[35] As soon as the truck was towed, a lien was placed on it, and the posture of the case was such that the court could remedy that.[36]

Seattle resumed its 72-hour parking rule on October 15, 2021. Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) now claims that it “will not impound a vehicle with someone living in it unless it poses a specific risk to public health as inadequate sanitation causing a direct risk of illness or injury, inadequate protection leaving the occupants exposed to the weather, or other environmental, fire, health and safety hazards.”[37] Also, if parking enforcement sees a vehicle with someone living in it parked in one spot for more than 72 hours, they are instructed by SDOT to attach information about support services to the warning notice.[38]

If the Long excessive fines test is applied to violators of the 72-hour parking law as the city resumes enforcement, the outcome will likely be fact dependent. For example, Long’s violation was not found to be linked to other criminal activity. However, there may be violators who do violate the 72-hour law while committing crimes like arson, for instance.[39] Also, violators may be parked in more harmful areas than a gravel parking lot. Finally, violators may have means to pay the impoundment costs despite parking a vehicle residence on the streets of Seattle. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how Long sets a precedent for the future of parking enforcement and the Homestead Act.

[1] Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 11.72.440(B).

[3] RCW 6.13.010.

[4] In May 2021, Senate Bill 5408 amended Washington State’s Homestead Act. The changes were significant but were not relevant in this case.

[5] City of Seattle v. Long, 493 P.3d 94, 101 (2021) (citing RCW 6.13.040).  

[6] Id. at 103.

[7] Id. at 116.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 99.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.; SMC 11.72.440(B).

[14] Long, 493 P.3d at 99.

[15] Id. at 114.

[16] Id. at 99.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] RCW 6.13.040.

[24] RCW 6.13.040(1).

[25] Long, 493 P.3d at 103.

[26] Id. at 106.

[27] Id. at 109.

[28] Id.

[29] Id. at 111.

[30] Id. at 114.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] 493 P.3d at 116.

[36] RCW 46.55.140(1).

[37] Seattle Begins Enforcing 72-Hour Parking Rule, supra note 1.

[38] Id.

[39] Seattle Nears Record Number of Fires Set at Homeless Camps this Year, Komonews.com (Aug. 19, 2021), https://komonews.com/news/local/seattle-nears-record-number-of-fires-set-this-year-at-homeless-camps.

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