City of Seattle v. Long

SummarySteven Long worked as a general tradesman and stored work tools and personal items in his truck, where he had been living since he was evicted from his apartment in 2014. In 2016, Long’s truck broke down in a gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle, where it remained for the next three months. A 72-hour notice was placed on Long’s truck indicating that, if not moved, the truck would be impounded in violation of Seattle Municipal Code SMC 11.72.440(B). Unable to move the truck, Long’s truck was impounded and from October 13 until November 3, Long was homeless, ill from sleeping in the cold, and unable to work without access to his tools. 

At an impoundment hearing, the $44 fine for the infraction was waived, the impoundment charges were reduced from $946.61 to $547.12, and a $10 administrative fee was added. Long’s payment plan obligated him to pay $50 per month. Long was permitted to retrieve his truck immediately. 

Long appealed and brought forward a variety of claims as the case moved through the superior court and the court of appeals including violations of (1) state and federal excessive fines clauses; (2) substantive due process; (3) the Washington state Homestead Act; and (4) article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution. Long then sought further review as to the excessive fines and article I, section 7 issues from the Washington Supreme Court. The City of Seattle cross petitioned, raising the homestead act as a contingent issue. 

Homestead Act

The Court determined that Long’s Homestead Act claim, alleging a forced sale of his home to collect on his debt, is premature because Seattle has not yet attempted to attach, execute, or force sale of the truck. 

Article I, Section 7

The Court rejected Long’s claim that failure to consider alternatives to impoundment violated article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution which states “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” because there were no alternatives to towing the truck and impoundment was reasonable under the circumstances.

Excessive Fines

The Court held that the impoundment and associated costs violated both the state and federal excessive fines clauses. The Court further held that ability to pay must be considered in an excessive fines inquiry. 

In reaching its determination, the Court treated the excessive fines provisions of the Washington state constitution (“Excessive bail shall not be required, excessive fines imposed, nor cruel punishment inflicted.” WASH. CONST. art. I, § 14) and the federal constitution (“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” U.S. CONST. amend. VIII.) as coextensive. To trigger either —  i.e., to be a fine –, there must be state action that is at least partially punitive, and it must be “excessive.”

The Court first analyzed whether the impound of a vehicle was “punishment”. Looking at the plain language of SMC provision 11.72.440(E), “Vehicles in violation … are subject to impound … in addition to any other penalty provided for by law.”, the Court affirmed the superior courts’ reasoning that one purpose of the ordinance is to penalize violators.The Court rejected the city’s argument that duration of the sanction negates its punitive function. Therefore, impoundment of Long’s truck was partially punitive and constitutes a fine.

The Court then analyzed whether the fine was excessive. A fine is excessive if it is grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the offense. United States v. Bajakajian, 524 U.S. 321, 336 (1998). While there are various interpretations of how to assess proportionality, here, the Court adopted the Ninth Circuit’s test. To determine whether the fine was grossly disproportionate, the test considers in totality: (1) the nature of the crime; (2) whether the violation was related to other illegal activities; (3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation; (4) the extent of the harm caused; and, significantly, (5) the person’s ability to pay the fine. 

  • With respect to the first factor—the nature and of the crime—the Court considered that overstaying one’s welcome in a specific location is “not particularly egregious” and that the city’s suspension of enforcement of the 72-hour parking violation during COVID-19 signals that the city views it as a relatively minor offense.
  • As to the second factor—relation to other illegal activities— there was no evidence that the infraction was related to any other criminal activity. 
  • Regarding the third factor—other penalties that may be imposed for the violation—the only penalty is the $44 ticket and impoundment costs.
  • Concerning the fourth factor—the extent of the harm caused— the Court found the harm was minimal because Long was parked without obstructing roadways, in an area of low demand, away from residential neighborhoods. However, the city was harmed when it paid the costs of towing and impoundment.
  • Finally, as to the fifth factor—Long’s ability to pay—the Court found that Long had little ability to pay $547.12. Long’s income was, at most, $700 per month, and he was homeless — a fact the Court repeatedly emphasized. The Court found it “difficult to conceive how Long would be able to save money for an apartment and lift himself out of homelessness while paying the fine and affording the expenses of daily life.” City of Seattle v. Long, No. 98824-2, 2021 WL 3556950, at *17 (Wash. Aug. 12, 2021)

The Court concluded that the impoundment and $547.12 payment plan were unconstitutionally excessive because they deprived Long of his means of living.

The case has been remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Washington Supreme Court’s opinion.

You can read the full opinion here and the Institute for Justice and Fines and Fees Justice Center’s brief of amici curiae in support of petition review here.

Due Process, Excessive Fines Clause
No. 98824-2
August 12, 2021
James Elliot Lobsenz, Carney Badley Spellman, Alison Sophia Bilow, Columbia Legal Services, Seattle, WA
Erica Franklin, Seattle City Attorney's Office, Robert Bertelson Mitchell Jr., Aaron Edward Millstein, K&L Gates LLP, Seattle, WA, Michael Jordan Thompson, Attorney at Law, Polson, MT