Attorneys for a homeless man in Seattle believe a new Supreme Court ruling could help him and future plaintiffs fight the impounding of their vehicles and other civil cases against the city of Seattle.
Steven Long’s truck was impounded by the city in 2016 while he was living on the street. His lawyers say the court’s ruling in Timbs v. Indiana means the Eighth Amendment protections against excessive fines apply to Long’s case and cases like his.
The court’s decision stems from a case in which the state of Indiana confiscated the Land Rover of a man named Tyson Timbs because officers suspected it was used while Timbs was selling opiates.
Timbs sued to get his car back, alleging that the $42,000 vehicle was worth considerably more than the maximum $10,000 fine associated with the felony, which would be “excessive.”
The Supreme Court agreed. In so doing, the Justices found that the Eighth Amendment applied in civil cases.
That is good news for Long, said Jim Lobsenz, an attorney at Carney Bradley Spellman, a Seattle-based law firm.
“If the Supreme Court thinks it might be an excessive fine for somebody to have their Land Rover taken away and they don’t live in it, then having your car taken away that you do live in? That really must be excessive,” Lobsenz said.
Long, a manual laborer and handyman, had parked his 2000 GMC Sierra for longer than the allotted 72 hours near CenturyLink Stadium, where he was working. When he came back one evening, the truck was gone.
The city saddled Long with a ticket and a $900 impound fee, which the court eventually reduced to $547. Still, attorneys argued, the impound was too costly for a homeless man, especially one deprived of his tools of trade, which were inside the towed car.
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With help from Columbia Legal Services, Long fought the city and eventually won. A judge found that the city had violated Long’s constitutional rights as well as a provision of Washington state law called the Homestead Act, which prohibits government from putting a lien against a person’s home to pay off debts.
News outlets picked up on Long’s victory because the judge effectively declared that a homeless man’s truck was to be treated as his home. But the city appealed the decision, which is now in the Washington State Court of Appeals.
Nearly two years later, the potential impact of the Supreme Court’s Timbs ruling on cases like Long’s is making waves in legal circles.
“If you look across the country, for example, to say, ‘How often has anybody living in their car challenged the impoundment of their car using the Eighth Amendment?’ they would say, ‘Once, in Steven Long’s case,’” Lobsenz said.
Attorneys for the city have already responded to the Eighth Amendment claim that Long’s attorneys raised. They argue that the money assessed to Long to retrieve his truck was not a “fine” but more like a loan extended by the city that Long merely had to pay back.
That’s important because the Eighth Amendment doesn’t govern “loans,” just “fines.” The Supreme Court found in the 1990s that civil asset forfeiture, the tactic used to take Timbs’ vehicle in Indiana, is classified as a punitive fine. Whether the same logic extends to impoundment fees has yet to be seen.
The City Attorney’s Office declined to be interviewed for this story.
Timbs v. Indiana is being hailed as a landmark case because it incorporated half of the Eighth Amendment (the prohibition on “cruel and unusual punishment” was already in place), meaning its ban on excessive fines now applies to the states. The Supreme Court incorporated constitutional amendments one by one. Now, only the Fifth Amendment language about grand juries remains unincorporated.
The ruling did not define “excessive” and many states like Washington already have prohibitions on “excessive fines” built into their state constitutions.
It’s too early to draw conclusions about how the Supreme Court’s decision will impact people like Long, argued Jeffrey Feldman, a law professor at the University of Washington, in an interview.
But Lobsenz hopes that the decision means that more people will raise Eighth Amendment defenses in court.
“All kinds of people who get these civil infractions are going to start raising it, and so are homeless people,” Lobsenz said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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