Fines

Washington's Top Court Cracks Down on Excessive City Fines

A homeless man’s truck was impounded in Seattle and he couldn’t afford the costs to get it back. That’s unconstitutional, justices rule.

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The Washington state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that the government could not deprive a man of the truck he was living in because he couldn't afford to repay hundreds of dollars in impound charges. That action counts as levying excessive fines and violates the Constitution, according to the ruling.

In 2016, Steven Long, a tradesman who was living out of his truck, parked his vehicle in a gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle and remained there for three months. Eventually, police warned him that he was violating municipal law by parking in the same spot for more than 72 hours. When he did not move his truck, the city impounded it and towed it away, leaving Long homeless (and without his work tools).

When Long attempted to get the truck back, he faced fines and impound fees of nearly $1,000. A magistrate cut the fees nearly in half and signed Long onto a $50-per-month payment plan. He appealed the arrangement with the help of Columbia Legal Services, arguing that the financial demands placed on him violated the Excessive Fines Clause of the Constitution.

The Washington Supreme Court ultimately agreed, concluding that a defendant's inability to pay a fine is something that courts must consider when determining whether a punishment is excessive: "The weight of history and the reasoning of the Supreme Court demonstrate that excessiveness concerns more than just an offense itself; it also includes consideration of an offender's circumstances. The central tenant [sic] of the excessive fines clause is to protect individuals against fines so oppressive as to deprive them of their livelihood." The ruling further noted that the potential "harm" to the city by Long's illegal parking was minimal and noted that Seattle had just last year suspended enforcement of the 72-hour parking rule to accommodate people during COVID-19 lockdowns.

The ruling draws on several previous court precedents, including 2019's Timbs v. Indiana Supreme Court decision. In that case, which also concerned the seizure of a man's vehicle (though for completely different reasons), the court unanimously determined that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against excessive fines and punishments includes state-level property seizures.

The property rights–protecting attorneys of the Institute for Justice (IJ) represented Tyson Timbs in that fight. IJ submitted a brief supporting Long in this case, as did the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and a couple of other civil rights organizations.

On Thursday, IJ took note of the win in a prepared statement.

"The Washington Supreme Court decision recognizes that a $500 fine may not be excessive for a billionaire, but for someone who is so poor they need to live in their vehicle, it is unconstitutionally ruinous," said Bill Maurer, managing attorney of IJ's Washington office. "The Washington Supreme Court's decision should act as a roadmap for every court considering how to implement the Excessive Fines Clause in the states."

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  2. The Washington Supreme Court ultimately agreed, concluding that a defendant’s inability to pay a fine is something that courts must consider when determining whether a punishment is excessive:

    Think long and hard about the implications of this. Think, long… and hard.

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    2. Yeah. The guy can live rent free on Seattle property that others have paid for. Unless his vehicle wasn’t registered he could have found a nearby Walmart parking lot. There are more than a few YT channels dedicated to living out of a vehicle/stealth camping.

      1. The problem was the truck. The guy could have pitched a tent in the same spot and they would have left him alone.

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  3. “The Washington Supreme Court decision recognizes that a $500 fine may not be excessive for a billionaire, but for someone who is so poor they need to live in their vehicle, it is unconstitutionally ruinous,” said Bill Maurer, managing attorney of IJ’s Washington office. “The Washington Supreme Court’s decision should act as a roadmap for every court considering how to implement the Excessive Fines Clause in the states.”

    All are equal before the la…

    *feels tap on shoulder*

    *woman with clipboard whispers in speaker’s ear*

    Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, it appears I was handed the wrong talking points. If you’d like to take a five minute breather, we’ll be announcing the new policy shortly.

    1. Good luck getting the hobo converted school bus towed away from the front of your house now. The welcome mat for bums is now a red carpet. I’m considering moving out of this state, after over a decade here.

      1. The hobo converted school bus is already in front of my house, and wasn’t being moved before this case was made. This just adds yet one more reason and excuse to not move it.

        Whatever we do, let’s not explore why Mr. Long’s residence was allowed to remain on city property, surrounded by garbage, stolen mountain bikes and barbecue grills for three months before they finally towed it. It’s like there he was, minding his own business, pulled up and parked for half an hour to go get a coffee, and when he came back… *wham* his properly parked RV, which was in good mechanical and running condition had been towed! The nerve! It’s an outrage! I won’t pay these excessive fines and I and my lawyers will see you in court! Good day, sir!

        1. I had to get the city of Spokane to tow a car from in front of one of my rental properties. It had been there since at least late July of 2020. It belonged to a friend of the tenant, who I kicked out going into Labor Day weekend. I was assured the owner would be along within a week to move it.

          I finally started complaining to the city in February. It got towed in late May. Since the former tenant mainly hung out with drug addicts, I’m guessing that factored into the inaction on the owner’s part to retrieve his vehicle.

      2. If you are a WA state supreme court judge, the van parked in front of your house will be towed.

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  4. I remember reading a story a while back about some guy in Sweden or Finland or whatever getting a crazy speeding ticket, because the fine was calculated based upon his income. Dude was a doctor or something, so the ticket was over a thousand dollars.

    Not that I’m saying that’s the way to go, but it is an alternative. They do that when they determine bail. Why not with fines as well? Just a thought.

    1. Equity based legal proceedings… I wonder how those could go wrong.

    2. You are thinking of Finland. In 2002, a Nokia executive was given a $103,000 speeding fine.
      In the USA, the 8th Amendment stands in the way
      “…nor [shall] excessive fines [be] imposed…”
      It would be an interesting way to start up a civil war, by soaking out-of-Staters with outlandish “fines.” Some States and localities do victimize outsiders, but not steeply enough to provoke a political backlash.

      1. In 2002, a Nokia executive was given a $103,000 speeding fine.
        In the USA, the 8th Amendment stands in the way
        “…nor [shall] excessive fines [be] imposed…”

        Progressives will argue that $100k is not excessive for people making several times that per year, hence no 8A violation.

        Reason, of course, will agree.

    3. They do that when they determine bail. Why not with fines as well? Just a thought.

      Bail is not a fine, it’s an economic incentive for you to come back to court.

  5. I’m always curious about the practical effects of rulings like this. Are the fines recalculated? Does the plaintiff immediately get his truck back? Is there any time frame or deadline placed on the city to comply with the ruling, and what happens if it chooses not to do so?

      1. What are the Partridge Family doing there?

      2. What a shit hole.

      3. It’s always quite easy for someone to make a decision when it doesn’t affect them. I’m sure the Washington state judges live in gated communities and don’t have to deal with the actual homelss problem in any way.

    1. I think the practical effect is to just not enforce the law in the long term. I’m particularly less impressed because the courts started at 1000$, lowered it then to 500$ due to difficulties, then offered a 50 dollar a month payment plan. All this clearly indicates they were trying to work with the guy. And I would be strongly surprised for a guy who supposedly working at all, if he couldn’t afford 50 a month.
      This really does just feel like a state saying “do not enforce vagrancy laws.” Which, if you’ve been to Seattle, definitely has downstream impact.

      1. There’s also the secondary issue, somewhat related to the bail issue, of this seemingly pushing the law towards imprisonment. The fines can’t get much lower than the ones here, and I doubt that would really change the ruling at this point, and so what do you do to enforce the law?

  6. On flip side of the “bum squatters” argument, is the guy who was ticketed multiple times for driving across the 520 bridge across Lake Washington in his fancy sports car at 120 MPH.

    A $500 speeding ticket was just part of the cost of having fun, even after they canceled his license. If the whole point is deterrence I agree with income proportionate fines.

    At some point, fines can just become a part of doing business. (Jaimie Diamon saying “Go ahead. Fine us. We have the money.”)

    The state or city can decide that some adjacent activity – trespassing, abandonment, improper upkeep is a misdeameanor or a felony, and different rules apply. (See the drug war.)

  7. Seriously?… This f*** can’t pay $50 a month to get his most precious commodity back? F*** him and anyone who sides with him. He lived on city property for 3 MONTHS!!! This country has become complete and utter B.S.

  8. The guy can live rent free on Seattle property that others have paid for.

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