Washington State Supreme Court Says $547 Fine Imposed On A Homeless Man Violates The Constitution
from the ability-to-pay-matters dept
It seems all but impossible to completely do away with civil asset forfeiture, but advances are being made around the country. Criminal asset forfeiture remains a thing — one that’s rarely troubled by reform legislation. But it can be just as absurd, even if it comes with an adjacent or attached criminal conviction.
The Supreme Court recently upheld a decision finding that the seizure of a $42,000 vehicle (via civil forfeiture) over a crime that only generated a maximum fine of $10,000 was excessive, violating Eighth Amendment protections. That decision has the potential to generate more successful challenges of forfeitures, given that many forfeitures don’t come attached to criminal convictions, which would seem to indicate almost any seizure at all would be excessive.
Another case dealing with the “excessive” aspect of forfeitures and fees has made its way to the top court in the state of Washington. It involves the seizure of a man’s vehicle — one that was also serving as his housing while he tried to find a place to live. (h/t Volokh Conspiracy)
The decision [PDF] opens with a description of the unfortunate series of events that left the truck’s owner homeless and in further financial trouble after the city’s decision to provide code enforcement, rather than solutions.
In 2016, Long was living in his truck. Long, then a 56-year-old member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, worked as a general tradesman and stored work tools as well as personal items in his vehicle. One day, Long was driving to an appointment when the truck began making “grinding” noises. On July 5, 2016, Long parked in a gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle. Long stayed on the property for the next three months.
On October 5, 2016, police alerted Long that he was violating the SMC by parking in one location for more than 72 hours. SMC [Seattle Municipal Code] 11.72.440(B). Long claims he told the officers that he lived in the truck. Later that day, a parking enforcement officer posted a 72-hour notice on the truck, noting it would be impounded if not moved at least one city block. SMC 11.30.060. Long did not move the truck. While Long was at work on October 12, 2016, a city-contracted company towed his truck. Without it, Long slept outside on the ground before seeking shelter nearby to escape the rain and wind.
The court reduced his fines to $547 (from $947) and set up a payment plan of $50/month. Despite these concessions, Long was still unable to afford paying back the city while still trying to find permanent housing. Long challenged the citation and the impoundment of his truck/home, claiming it violated state and federal excessive fine clauses, as well as the homestead act.
Two courts handled Long’s challenge and arrived at different conclusions.
On a RALJ appeal, the superior court affirmed and reversed in part: it rejected the substantive due process claim, and it held that the impoundment costs were unconstitutionally excessive under the federal constitution and that the payment plan violated the homestead act. The court concluded that the impoundment itself did not violate the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The parties then sought review at the Court of Appeals. In a published decision, the court concluded that the payment plan was invalid under the homestead act and rejected the constitutional argument that the impoundment and associated costs were excessive.
The state Supreme Court says the homestead act applies, even if it wasn’t violated.
RCW 6.13.040(1) automatically protects occupied personal property as a homestead, and no declaration is required. Long’s truck therefore constitutes a homestead. However, we agree with Seattle that no attachment, execution, or forced sale occurred. The homestead act protections were not triggered at this point in Long’s case because no party sought to collect on Long’s debt.
The court also says the city had the authority and justification to tow Long’s truck off its property, The truck wasn’t running so Long couldn’t drive it away, leaving towing the only option. It also had the authority to impound the vehicle for violating the parking law.
But the court says the fine — even reduced and with a payment plan in place — was still excessive, given Long’s financial situation. Citing both the Supreme Court’s recent Timbs decision and this country’s desire to shift away from excessive fines after declaring its independence nearly 250 years ago, the court says even this seemingly-small amount went too far.
First, there’s the matter of the infraction, which carries with it a fee far smaller than what the city ended up charging Long for the violation.
The city certainly has an interest in keeping its streets clear and free of traffic, but the offense of overstaying one’s welcome in a specific location is not particularly egregious. See Seattle’s Suppl. Br. at 13. Moreover, the city has suspended enforcement of the 72-hour parking violation during COVID-19, signaling that the city views it as a relatively minor offense. See Amici Br. of Pub. Justice et al. at 8. Second, there is no evidence that the infraction was related to any other criminal activity. Third, the only penalty identified is the $44 ticket and towing/storage costs.
Once the towing and storage costs were added back in, the $44 fine (which was waived by the judge) became nearly $947. Even its eventual reduction to $547 still put it out of reach for Long.
Long’s circumstances were such that he had little ability to pay $547.12. When his vehicle was impounded, Long earned between $300.00 and $600.00 in addition to $100.00 in tribal fees per month. He told the magistrate at his impoundment hearing that he lived in his truck and had only $50.00 to his name. Long was attempting to move himself out of homelessness by saving for an apartment. During that time, Long’s truck held his clothes, food, bedding, and various work tools essential to his job as a general tradesman. After the truck was towed, Long slept outside before seeking shelter from the cold weather, and he contracted influenza. These facts indicate Long could not afford to pay the $547.12 assessment. From October 13 until November 3, Long did not have his truck and could not access his tools, thus he could not find skilled labor jobs. During that period, he was homeless and sick, likely making very little money. The impoundment severely compromised Long’s ability to work—in other words, his livelihood.
The payment plan, while reducing the cost to only $50/month, was also excessive, given Long’s circumstances.
Moreover, paying $50 per month when Long made at most $700, would leave him $650 with which to live. Cf. Hr’g at 57 (the superior court stated that Long’s “income per month is something like $300 at best.”); see also Amici Br. of Pub. Justice et al. at 18 & n.12 (the self-sufficiency standard or minimum amount of money to adequate meet one’s needs for a Seattle resident is $2,270 per month). It is 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.
The city argued that $50/month could not possibly violate the Eighth Amendment. The state Supreme Court says the city is wrong.
Seattle asserts that treating the payment plan as excessive punishment is to “trivialize the Eighth Amendment.” Yet to do what the city asks is to ignore the Eighth Amendment entirely. This we cannot do.
The court says this won’t prevent the city from enforcing statutes. But it will require it to better means testing when hitting residents with fines and fees to ensure it doesn’t violate their Constitutional protections. And if it finds these fines and fees are excessive — especially when depriving someone of their most valuable assets — it’s unlikely to court will have much sympathy for forfeitures that are similarly excessive.