In 2016, Steven Long parked his broken-down truck on a gravel lot near Rainier Avenue and Dearborn Street, not far from the stadiums where he was working, cleaning up after Seattle Sounders games. When he got back from work, his truck, his tools and all his worldly possessions were gone.
That was the start of a multi-year court battle that could upend the city of Seattle’s approach to vehicle residency — a category that makes up 41 percent of unsheltered homelessness in the county, but has been largely left out of the city’s coordinated homelessness response.
Long’s case is back in front of the appellate court after a King County Superior Court ruled in 2018 that the city had violated Long’s constitutional rights by towing his residence and charging him to retrieve it.
Columbia Legal Services, which is representing Long, advanced four primary arguments. First is that the fines to return the vehicle were excessive, second that Long did not receive due process when the vehicle was impounded during harsh weather and that it constituted improper search and seizure, said Alison Bilow, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services.
The fourth argument involves a law called the Homestead Act that protects a person’s home from excessive fines and liens. The state Legislature expanded that to include boats and, critically, vehicles.
Attorney Robert Mitchell, representing the city, pushed back, saying the Homestead Act, the excessive fines clause and due process arguments did not apply.
Superior Court judges found Seattle had violated that law because they placed arduous fines on a homeless man after confiscating Long’s home and tools of trade. The fines were so heavy for a person with little income that Long had to enter into a payment plan to get his belongings back.
The Superior Court also found that the fines were excessive, given that they were assessed for a parking infraction.
A ruling in Long’s favor could be game-changing for a city that, at last count, has 19 percent of people experiencing homelessness living in their vehicles.
“Taking away someone’s home doesn’t do anything to alleviate Seattle’s homelessness crisis,” Bilow 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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