City of Seattle v. Long, 98824-2

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Washington
Writing for the CourtMADSEN, J.
Decision Date12 August 2021
PartiesCITY OF SEATTLE, Respondent, v. STEVEN GREGORY LONG, Petitioner.
Docket Number98824-2

CITY OF SEATTLE, Respondent,
v.

STEVEN GREGORY LONG, Petitioner.

No. 98824-2

Supreme Court of Washington

August 12, 2021


MADSEN, J.

Steven Gregory Long parked his truck on property owned by the city of Seattle for more than 72 hours, violating Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) 11.72.440(B). For this civil infraction, a city-contracted towing company impounded Long's truck. Long contested the infraction and eventually agreed to a payment plan to reimburse the city for the costs of the impoundment. He now argues, among other things, that the impoundment violated Washington's homestead act, ch. 6.13 RCW, and the federal excessive fines clause. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

BACKGROUND

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 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.

Long requested a hearing to contest the parking infraction. SMC 11.30.120 (vehicle owner may request a hearing in municipal court to contest an impoundment). At the November 2, 2016 impoundment hearing, Long reiterated that he lived in his truck and kept all of his work tools in it. The magistrate found that Long had parked illegally, but the magistrate waived the $44.00 ticket, reduced the impoundment charges from $946.61 to $547.12, and added a $10.00 administrative fee. SMC 11.31.121 (violating the 72-hour rule is a "parking infraction" subject to $44.00 fine).[1] The magistrate drafted a payment plan requiring Long to pay $50.00 per month.[2] Long felt "forced" to agree or risk losing his truck at a public auction. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 109.

Long appealed the magistrate's findings. Though he did not contest that the truck was parked illegally, Long argued that the impoundment violated the state and federal excessive fines clauses, substantive due process, and the homestead act. Long moved for summary judgment, which the municipal court denied.

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. City of Seattle v. Long, 13 Wn.App. 2d 709, 467 P.3d 979 (2020). The court also held that Long failed to show the impoundment was unlawful pursuant to article I, section 7 of the Washington State Constitution, declining to review it for the first time on appeal. Id. at 733-35.

Long sought review here of the excessive fines and the article I, section 7 issues. Pet. for Review at 4-5, 8-18. Seattle cross petitioned, raising the homestead act as a contingent issue. Answer to Pet. for Review at 16-20. We granted review of all three.[3]Order, No. 98824-2 (Wash. Dec. 2, 2020). Numerous amici curiae have filed briefs in support of Long, including the Institute for Justice, Public Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, Northwest Justice Project, Juvenile Law Center, and Professors Alexes Harris and Mary Pattillo. Two amici contributed briefs in support of Seattle: the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the Washington Association of Municipal Attorneys.[4]

ANALYSIS

We review a summary judgment order de novo, engaging in the same inquiry as the trial court. Highline Sch. Dist. No. 401 v. Port of Seattle, 87 Wn.2d 6, 15, 548 P.2d 1085 (1976). Summary judgment is proper if the record shows "no genuine issue as to any material fact" and the "moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." CR 56(c). The parties do not appear to contest the facts in this case.

I. The Homestead Act

A "uniquely American contribution" to real property law, homestead exemptions are based on the notion that citizens should have a home where family is sheltered and living beyond the reach of financial misfortune and the demands of certain classes of creditors. George L. Haskins, Homestead Exemptions, 63 HARV. L. REV. 1289, 1289 (1950); Charless &Blow v. Lamberson, 1 Iowa 435, 439 (1855); see also Paul Goodman, The Emergence of Homestead Exemption in the United States: Accommodation and Resistance to the Market Revolution, 1840-1880, 80 J. AM. HIST. 470, 470 (1993). States began enacting homestead laws in the 19th century in order to provide security in an increasingly volatile American economy. Goodman, supra, at 470. Prior to these laws, the United States experienced financial panics that caused unemployment, bankruptcy, and loss of the family home. Id. at 471.

Texas enacted the first homestead exemption in 1839. MacKenzie Breitenstein, Note, The Ideal Homestead Exemption: Avoiding Asset Conversion &Fraud but Still Protecting Dependents, 58 DRAKE L. REV. 1121, 1123 (2010). Today, 48 states have homestead exemption laws. Id. at 1126. All such laws require the claimed "homestead" to be the primary residence of the debtor or his or her dependents, and only one homestead may be claimed. Id. at 1127. Relevant here, the homestead exemption does not protect the full value of a homestead but protects up to "the sum of fifteen thousand dollars in the case of other personal property described in RCW 6.13.010." Former RCW 6.13.030(2) (2007).

Washington's constitution provides,

The legislature shall protect by law from forced sale a certain portion of the homestead and other property of all heads of families

WASH. CONST. art. XIX, § 1. The legislature fulfilled this mandate by passing the homestead act in 1895. LAWS OF 1895, ch. 64, § 1; Felton v. Citizens Fed. Sav. &Loan Ass'n of Seattle, 101 Wn.2d 416, 418, 679 P.2d 928 (1984). Like all homestead acts, Washington's statute "'implements the policy that each citizen have a home where [the] family may be sheltered and live beyond the reach of financial misfortune.'" In re Dependency of Schermer, 161 Wn.2d 927, 953, 169 P.3d 452 (2007) (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Pinebrook Homeowners Ass'n v. Owen, 48 Wn.App. 424, 427, 739 P.2d 110 (1987)). The act is favored in law, and courts construe it liberally so it may achieve its purpose of protecting family homes. Id.

Under the homestead act some residences are automatically protected while others require an owner to file a declaration. RCW 6.13.040(1), (2); In re Tr.'s Sale of Real Property of Sweet, 88 Wn.App. 199, 201, 944 P.2d 414 (1997) ("Since 1981, homestead protection is 'automatic.'"). Qualifying homes are protected from attachment and execution or forced sale for the debts of the owner up to the amount specified in the statute. Former RCW 6.13.070 (1987). The homestead exemption does not protect the full value of a homestead, but it protects up to "the sum of fifteen thousand dollars in the case of other personal property described in RCW 6.13.010." Former RCW 6.13.030(2).

Here, we must determine whether the homestead act applies and whether any violation occurred. First, Seattle agrees that Long's truck may qualify as a homestead but contends that additional procedural steps are necessary-namely, that RCW 6.13.040(1) requires Long to file a declaration, which he did not. Long responds that because he occupied the truck as his principal residence, it automatically qualifies. Second, Seattle argues that no attachment, execution, or forced sale occurred; Long disagrees.

For the following reasons, we agree with Long. 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.

A. RCW 6.13.040(1) Automatically Protects Personal Property Occupied as a Principal Residence

The meaning of a statute is a question of law we review de novo. State v. Mitchell, 169 Wn.2d 437, 442, 237 P.3d 282 (2010). "'The court's fundamental objective in construing a statute is to ascertain and carry out the legislature's intent.'" Lake v. Woodcreek Homeowners Ass'n, 169 Wn.2d 516, 526, 243 P.3d 1283 (2010) (quoting Arborwood Idaho, LLC v. City of Kennewick, 151 Wn.2d 359, 367, 89 P.3d 217 (2004)). If a statute's meaning is plain on its face, we must follow that plain meaning. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell &Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9-10, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). A statute's plain meaning is discerned from the ordinary meaning of the language, the context of the statute, related provisions, and the statutory scheme as a whole. Udall v. T.D. Escrow Servs., Inc., 159 Wn.2d 903, 909, 154...

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