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.

Filed Under: , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Washington State Supreme Court Says $547 Fine Imposed On A Homeless Man Violates The Constitution”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
OGquaker says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Sigh

Within my working life from 16yrs to 29 years (when i fell asleep on the freeway getting to the "Job" at Technicolor, and quit the workforce) the LATimes dropped the "labor section" of the paper, Paul Volcker and the A-hole Ayn Randers that preceded and followed him intentionally killed usury and Riba, destroyed the Savings and Loan industry (billions of un-limited free $$ WITH federal insurance against loss) & the "Business section" panicked whenever actually unemployed Americans went below 15%: "INVESTORS WILL RUN AWAY!!!!!" John Keynes would be spinning in his grave for the last 50 years, except for the invisible hand stuck in his mouth.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Let's turn that around shall we?

Context matters, while $50 a month may be affordable for someone who has a job and a house it’s a much more difficult proposition for a person who has neither, however if they’re really willing to argue that $50 per month isn’t a big deal to pay because people who aren’t living on the streets can afford it then it seems only fair for any fines those making that argument suffer from here on out be calculated according to what a multi-millionare can pay.

$500,000 or $50,000 a month for whatever minor law they break should do the trick(jaywalking, littering, take your pick), that amount wouldn’t be too big of a deal to a person in the ‘owns a mansion’ income level so it shouldn’t be a problem for someone who makes just a titch less, and if they struggle to pay that it can simply be pointed out that people richer then then can do it so they should be able to manage just fine.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Let's turn that around shall we?

mental drift net engage

One of the nordic nations does traffic fines based on income.
They figured out that rich people just consider the fines a small nuisance to doing whatever they want, while ‘average’ people can have problems after paying the fines.

While people will scoff at the 2 tier justice I invite them to look at the justice we have now in this country.

I mean how many times has the Walton heiress been pulled over & then delivered home by the police because shes a tiny bit to drunk to have been behind the wheel & we can just pay those people she hit off.

How about all of the proposed laws to charge drug dealers with murder if someone OD’ed on fentynyl even if the dealer didn’t add it or know about it… but we can’t even speak unkindly to the elected leaders who are carrying on the big lies & causing a pandemic to be worse & the bodycount to keep growing.

We need to cure people of this idea that poor people just aren’t trying hard enough or that there is actually useful help out there.
Things happen & we spend more time blaming the person in the situation while totally ignorant of the failed system we expect would completely help them if only they tried harder.

Maybe its that lack of empathy for others & actually putting yourself in their shoes (rather than the imaginary scene in your head) that is helping all of the maskholes sleep at night knowing they stuck it to the libs & ignoring the idea that their actions can and will kill people.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Paul B says:

Re: Let's turn that around shall we?

Other parts of the world use a sliding scale based on income. If a Multi-Millionaire is not impacted by a fine then it’s not really a fine, it’s just a control mechanism for lower classes.

Downside of this system is technically the poorest people would pay nothing, but the places with a system like this often have state benefits for the poor that are far better then our own.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: Let's turn that around shall we?

How is it a downside that those that can not afford to pay fines don’t pay fines? the root cause of most crime is poverty. Financially punishing a person for being poor is immoral and unethical and only serves to inflict a cycle of poverty based punishment. (interest for failing to pay fines, fines for failing to pay fines, void drivers licenses, arrests, and jail time for failure to pay fines leading to chronic unemployment leading to not paying court fees, resulting in more of the same.

Fines as a form of punishment, in a capitalist system that criminalizes poverty, are designed to keep people incarcerated or in low wages positions from which escape is i feasible, creating a captive serf class in as well as feeding modern slavery.

And that’s before talking about how failure to pay a fine can justify your death by cop.

Paul B says:

Re: Re: Re: Let's turn that around shall we?

The point I was badly making is that if your going to have a fine, it should impact everyone equally. Those who have nothing really cant be impacted by a fine since they already have nothing.

European countries often have safety nets that mean few people are so poor that a fine cant touch them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Let's turn that around shall we?

How is it a downside that those that can not afford to pay fines don’t pay fines?

Fines, like other lawfully sanctioned punishments, are meant to deter people from offending. If a person of sufficient poverty knows that the fine for an offense is $0, why not commit that offense whenever it’s even slightly beneficial? As constructed, there is no downside to doing so.

Fines may not be the right way to deter/punish crime in some cases, but there needs to be some sort of negative consequence. In this case, I agree with the superior court that the negative consequences were grossly inconsistent with the infraction. (Any infraction that results in a vehicle being towed or impounded tends to have grossly inconsistent consequences, because the impound fees are absurd relative to what it costs the government to retain custody of the vehicle – and that’s before considering the facts here, where Long lost use of all the important property that was in the vehicle, rather than "just" the ability to drive from point to point (which, yes, he already didn’t have since the vehicle was broken).) I would also argue that, to the extent a financial penalty was assessed at all, the court should have granted an indefinite suspension of the fine, at a 0% interest rate, with the suspension ending when Long had sufficient means that paying the fine would not be ruinous or when Long demonstrates that he is abusing the suspension (such as by committing additional crimes punishable by fines that would be suspended).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Ah. White man's justice

This Comment Is Racist.

This crap has got to stop and is exactly the kind of hateful rhetoric that fuels assholes on the right. Knock it off. It’s not insightful or intelligent to say this. You’re in a vacuum. Grow up and stop looking for opportunities to post your self-righteousness. It’s not helpful or relevant to solving the problem. Posting hate is posting hate and it matters not who did it.

OGquaker says:

Tens of thousands of homes are held off the market in this city

I had an aerospace "job" for a few years at $0.30 more than "minimum wage" (I ran the optical department of a top 100 DOD contractor, PhotoSonics) and bought a four-bedroom house for $28k, sold it for $39K when i was making $5.00/hour. Last year I was offered $800k for this 3 bedroom house, the current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour. "Investors" are the only sub-set of humans on this planet that count.

Anonymous Coward says:

The cops in WA don’t seem too bothered by this. Probably a pain in the ass to inventory a person’s vehicle they’ve been living in anyways.

But telling them that can’t use anything larger than 50 caliber (banning many crowd control devices) and that a legal duty to attempt de-escalation during mental health calls now exists made many departments throw a tantrum. Weirdly the ACLU and FOP actually criticized police department’s response to the new laws taking effect in a similar manner.

Anonymous Coward says:

That fine would be a computer. What he should have done was find a way to break into and lower the initial debt to a lower amount, pay off the altered amount. That would have been the end of it.

The books would still balance, and nobody would be the wiser.

I did that when I was in high school so my father would not have to pauy a $2000 bill I ran up when I #((A#A$ up machine in woodshop class. I broke into the school’s computer network, knocked a digit off, and then paid off the alttered amount, and the shcool was never the wiser, becuase all the books still balanced.

That is what he should have done, and they would have never been the wiser because the books would still balance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

  • Loser: subjective, but not well supported here. He could’ve moved into a homeless shelter or taken up panhandling at any point after he lost his house. Instead, he lived in his truck and kept pursuing an honest living. What more would you want him to have done to prove that he was of good character?
  • Criminal: what prior convictions did he have? Even for the event that got his vehicle towed, the article makes it pretty clear this was not an intentional crime. If he could have afforded to repair/tow his vehicle, he almost certainly would have – not only to avoid being hassled by the city, but because having his vehicle in good order would make maintaining employment easier.
  • Drug addict: The article makes no mention of an addiction. Additionally, based on his reported income problems, I doubt he could have supported an addiction on his lawful income, and there is no mention of unlawful income.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...