City of Seattle v. Long, No. 78230-4-I

CourtCourt of Appeals of Washington
Citation463 P.3d 135
Docket NumberNo. 78230-4-I
Decision Date04 May 2020
Parties CITY OF SEATTLE, Petitioner/Cross-Respondent, v. Steven Gregory LONG, Respondent/Cross-Petitioner.

463 P.3d 135

CITY OF SEATTLE, Petitioner/Cross-Respondent,
v.
Steven Gregory LONG, Respondent/Cross-Petitioner.

No. 78230-4-I

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1.

FILED May 4, 2020


PUBLISHED OPINION

CHUN, J.

¶1 The Washington State Constitution mandates that the legislature protect portions of homesteads from forced sale. Accordingly, over a century ago, Washington passed its first homestead law. And over 25 years ago, our state legislature expanded homestead protection to "personal property that the owner uses as a residence," including automobiles. The law requires Washington courts to construe the "Homestead Act" (Act), chapter 6.13 RCW, broadly due to "the sanctity with which the legislature has attempted to surround and protect homestead rights." Baker v. Baker, 149 Wn.App. 208, 212, 202 P.3d 983 (2009).

¶2 Here, the city of Seattle (City) properly concedes that Steven Long's truck, which constituted his principal residence, may constitute a homestead. State and Seattle laws, however, allow for the forced sale of a vehicle after impoundment, regardless of whether such personal property constitutes a homestead. This case concerns whether the City violated Long's homestead rights when it towed his truck and withheld it under the threat of forced sale unless he paid the impoundment costs or signed a payment plan.

¶3 Long concedes that the City could have ticketed him, towed his truck, and required him to pay for towing and storage costs and an administrative fee without violating his homestead rights. The problem, Long argues, is that the City withheld the truck

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under the threat of a forced sale if he did not sign a payment plan. We agree. As noted above, the law requires us to construe the Homestead Act broadly in favor of the homeowner, so that it may achieve its purpose of protecting homes. In doing so, we determine that the Act protected Long's truck as a homestead and the City violated the Act by withholding the truck subject to auction unless he paid the impoundment costs or agreed to a payment plan. We therefore affirm the superior court's decision to void the payment plan.

¶4 This case also presents the following constitutional issues: First, whether impounding a vehicle that serves as a home and requiring the registered owner to pay the associated costs constitutes excessive punishment under the federal constitution's Eighth Amendment. Second, whether a vehicle owner may assert the state-created danger doctrine under the due process clause to obtain relief from impoundment. And third, whether Long may raise for the first time on appeal that towing a vehicle that serves as a home violates the private affairs guarantee of our state constitution.

¶5 We conclude these constitutional arguments fail. As for the Eighth Amendment, assuming without deciding that the impoundment and associated costs constitute penalties, they are not excessive because they directly and proportionally relate to the offense of illegal parking and are the exact penalties the City Council authorized. We also determine that Long cannot assert the state-created danger doctrine to seek relief from the impoundment, and he cannot raise his claim under the private affairs guarantee for the first time on appeal.

¶6 Our decision does not affect the City's authority to tow and impound an illegally parked vehicle.1 Nor does it prohibit the City from charging a vehicle owner for costs associated with the towing and impounding of a vehicle. But if that vehicle serves as the owner's principal residence, the City may not withhold the vehicle from the owner under the threat of forced sale.

¶7 We affirm in part and reverse in part.

I. BACKGROUND

¶8 King County (County) currently faces a homelessness2 crisis. In January 2019, researchers identified 11,199 people experiencing homelessness within the County.3 Of these individuals, 2,147 lived in a vehicle.4 These figures apparently underestimate the number of people experiencing homelessness in the County.5

A. Seattle's 72-hour Rule

¶9 The Seattle Municipal Code (SMC) generally prohibits parking a vehicle in the same location on City property for more than 72 hours. SEATTLE MUNICIPAL CODE (SMC) 11.72.440(B) (72-hour Rule). If a vehicle is parked in violation of the 72-hour Rule, it is "subject to impound as provided for in Chapter 11.30 SMC." SMC 11.72.440(E). SMC 11.30.030 incorporates applicable provisions of Chapter 46.55 RCW by reference. Under RCW 46.55.140(1), "[a] registered tow truck operator who has a valid and signed impoundment authorization has a lien upon the impounded vehicle for services provided in

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the towing and storage of the vehicle." If the registered owner does not claim their vehicle or contest the impoundment within 15 days of the tow, the tow truck operator "shall conduct a sale of the vehicle at public auction" and use the proceeds to satisfy its lien. RCW 46.55.130(1), RCW 46.55.130(2)(h).

¶10 If a person seeks to redeem an impounded vehicle without contesting the impoundment, then they must pay the towing contractor for the removal, towing, and storage costs of the impoundment plus an administrative fee. SEATTLE MUNICIPAL CODE (SMC) 11.30.120(B). If a person chooses to contest the impoundment, then they may request a hearing before the municipal court. SEATTLE MUNICIPAL CODE (SMC) 11.30.160. If the municipal court determines the City properly impounded the vehicle, then the vehicle "shall be released only after payment to the City of any fines imposed on any underlying traffic or parking infraction and satisfaction of any other applicable requirements of SMC 11.30.120(B) and payment of the costs of impoundment and administrative fee to the towing company." SMC 11.30.160(B). The municipal court also may allow the owner to make payments for the impoundment costs and administrative fee over time if there is extreme financial need and effective guarantee of payment. SMC 11.30.160(B). In that case, the City pays the impoundment costs to the towing company. SMC 11.30.160(B).

B. Steven Long

¶11 Long, a 60-year-old member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Flathead Nation, was evicted from his apartment in 2014. Since then, he has lived in his truck, a 2000 GMC 2500 Sierra valued at about $4,000. Long works as a general laborer and keeps work tools, as well as personal items, in his truck. Long's work includes construction, painting, light plumbing, mechanics, and other labor.

¶12 In June 2016, while driving his truck, Long heard "grinding noises" coming from the gears. Long pulled into a store parking lot and stayed there for a few weeks with the business's permission. On July 5, 2016, Long moved his truck to an unused gravel lot owned by the City. Long stated that he parked at the lot because "it is secluded, there were other individuals living in vehicles, and the public did not appear to use it regularly." The lot was also near a day center for the homeless.

¶13 Three months later, on October 5, 2016, police were dispatched to an area near the gravel lot for an unrelated complaint. After the police dealt with the complainant, another individual walked up and reported an incident involving Long. The officers approached Long and told him that, under city ordinance, his truck could not remain parked on City property for more than 72 hours. Long states that he told the officers the truck was inoperable and that he needed a part to repair it. Long also claims he told the officers that the truck was his home. The officers called a parking enforcement officer (PEO) to "tag" the truck. A PEO arrived and posted a 72-hour notice on Long's truck, which stated that the vehicle would be impounded it if he did not move it at least one city block within 72 hours.

¶14 Long did not move his truck because he did not believe it was running well enough to drive. On October 12, 2016, Lincoln Towing, which contracts with the City to perform impound services, towed Long's truck while he was away working. Long learned of the impoundment when he returned to the lot around midnight. He was distressed because "it was a cold night and the beginning of an intense wind and rain storm." The truck contained his "winter jacket, clothes, sleeping bag, blankets, tools, tool boxes, air mattress, cooking stove and utensils, change for the bus, rubbing alcohol for [his] joints, laptop, and all [his] personal items for bathing and cleaning [him]self." After unsuccessfully trying to create a shelter out of a tarp, Long went to the nearby day center. Because the center did not have any available beds or mats, Long sat in a chair until the morning. Without his truck, Long began to live outside.

¶15 On October 18, 2016, Long obtained access to his truck at the Lincoln Towing lot and removed some personal items and bedding that he could carry. Long, however,

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could not afford to pay the costs to redeem his truck.

¶16 Long requested a hearing on the impoundment, which occurred before a magistrate at Seattle Municipal Court on November 2, 2016. Long told the court that the truck was his home. But because Long did not argue that he had parked his truck legally, the magistrate determined that the ticket and impoundment were proper. The magistrate waived the $44 ticket, reduced the impoundment charges from $946.61 to $547.12, and added a $10 administrative fee. The magistrate set up a payment plan that required Long to pay $50 per month. Long felt he "had no real choice but to agree" to the payment plan because he needed his truck and did not want the City to auction it.

¶17 After the hearing, Long retrieved his truck from the impound lot. There, he learned that if he had not retrieved the vehicle, Lincoln Towing would have sold it at auction three days later—on November 5, 2016. Long drove his truck to a friend's property for storage. As of March 13, 2017, Long continued to experience homelessness, worked in Seattle, and lived outside.

¶18 Long...

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