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$547 Fine Violates Excessive Fines Clause, When It Exceeds the Target's Ability to Pay

So the Washington Supreme Court holds in a case involving a man who was living in his truck, and who had to pay the money when his truck was impounded for being parked too long in one place.


From City of Seattle v. Long, decided today by a largely unanimous Washington Supreme Court (in an opinion by Justice Madsen):

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. 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. 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. 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. The magistrate drafted a payment plan requiring Long to pay $50.00 per month. Long felt "forced" to agree or risk losing his truck at a public auction….

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. States began enacting homestead laws in the 19th century in order to provide security in an increasingly volatile American economy…. 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." …

[We conclude that] 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….

Long also seeks relief under the state and federal excessive fines clauses…. Absent support [in the briefing] for an independent analysis, we view article I, section 14 and the Eighth Amendment as coextensive for the purposes of excessive fines….

Under the Court's precedent, the impoundment of Long's truck was partially punitive and constitutes a fine. [Details omitted. -EV]

Next, we consider whether the fines were excessive. "The touchstone of the constitutional inquiry under the Excessive Fines Clause is the principle of proportionality: The amount of the forfeiture must bear some relationship to the gravity of the offense that it is designed to punish." …

Critical to the present case is whether this proportionality inquiry can or should include consideration of a person's ability to pay…. The Magna Carta—from which the Eighth Amendment descended—limited the government's power to impose punitive fines by, in part, forbidding penalties "so large as to deprive [a person] of his livelihood." English freemen could be amerced only in such a way as to save "'to him his contenement'" [freehold land held by a feudal tenant, especially land used to support the tenant], a merchant "his merchandise," and a serf his "wainage" [the plow, team, and other implements used by a person ([especially] a villein) to cultivate the soil or the cultivated land or the profits from it."

Across the pond, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals explained that its excessive fines clause reflected the traditional understanding that any "fine or amercement ought to be according to the degree of the fault and the estate of the defendant." Jones v. Commonwealth (Va. 1799) (emphasis added). Thomas Cooley's esteemed [1868] constitutional treatise stated that the excessive fines provision requires a fine to "have some reference to the party's ability to pay it." Nineteenth century lawmakers appear to have accepted this traditional understanding. [Details omitted. -EV]

A number of modern state and federal courts have joined the chorus of legal scholars to conclude that the history of the clause and the reasoning of the Supreme Court strongly suggest that considering ability to pay is constitutionally required. [Details omitted. -EV] …

Further, this court has recognized that punitive fines should not be sought or imposed as "a source of revenue." It has been said that "offender-funded justice" comprises much of the funding for criminal justice across the country, including traffic and parking violation fines. Courts scrutinize "governmental action more closely when the State stands to benefit." Including an ability to pay inquiry for an excessive fines claim allows courts to do just that….

Our gross disproportionality test considers " '(1) the nature and extent of the crime, (2) whether the violation was related to other illegal activities, (3) the other penalties that may be imposed for the violation, and (4) the extent of the harm caused,' " as well as a person's ability to pay the fine. In light of these factors, we conclude that the impoundment and $547.12 payment plan were unconstitutionally excessive.

First, the nature of the offense at issue is a civil parking infraction that carries a $44 fine. 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. 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.

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. In this case, the magistrate waived the ticket and reduced the associated costs from approximately $900 to $550. If Long fell behind on payments, he would be subject to additional penalties in the form of late charges and collection efforts. Fourth, the extent of the harm caused was minimal. As the superior court noted, Long was not parked in an area of "very hot demand for city vehicles or otherwise." He was not parked in a residential neighborhood, and as noted, he was not cited for blocking or obstructing a roadway.

On the other hand, the city was harmed when it paid the costs of towing and impoundment. Seattle leans heavily on the notion of reimbursement as evidence that the payment plan is not excessive because "[t]he government is entitled to rough remedial justice." … [But] "rough equivalence of the value of the property forfeited and the amount spent on prosecution may not always insulate a forfeiture from a finding that the forfeiture is 'excessive.'" Reimbursement is but one factor courts may consider in a proportionality inquiry.

Fifth, 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.

Moreover, paying $50 per month when Long made at most $700, would leave him $650 with which to live. 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. 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….

This decision is not intended to suggest that Seattle can never impound vehicles or impose costs associated with towing. Nor does it require city parking enforcement officers to determine a vehicle owner's ability to pay at the issuance of a parking infraction …. The above analysis focuses only on enforcement. The excessive fines clause prohibits the extraction of payment as a punishment for some offenses that would deprive a person of his or her livelihood. A natural venue for this inquiry is an impoundment hearing in municipal court.

A concurrence by Chief Justice González, joined by two other Justices, had a slightly different approach to the homestead analysis.

Congratulations to my colleague Beth Colgan, who has written extensively on this subject, and whose work was cited by the majority.