If you live in a car, is it your home?
The answer is yes, according to Judge Catherine Shaffer from the King County Superior Court in Seattle, Washington. Shaffer ruled that the city of Seattle violated a Washington state law by towing the 2000 GMC pickup of a homeless man living in the vehicle and then warning it would sell the vehicle if he didn’t pay the “excessive” fees, according to The Seattle Times.
The decision is based on both the state constitution and the Homestead Act, a century-old state law. The latter says homes can’t be forcibly sold to pay off some debts.
Since 2014, Steven Long has lived in his car, according to WSB-TV2. He parked his car on one side street for five months in 2016.
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But Seattle has a rule that no car can be parked in the same spot for over 72 hours. Police told Long he had to move his car from the spot in October, according to SeattlePI, but he kept it in the same place.
He argued that his car was having issues and that he feared it would break down on a road, according to court documents obtained by The Stranger. An officer ticketed his car, where Long stored his work tools for his job at CenturyLink Field, and left.
Four days later, Long discovered that his car had been towed, WSB-TV2 reported, and that the city wanted him to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and fees before he could get it back.
The city warned it would sell the truck if the payments didn’t come in, according to The Stranger. A municipal judge allowed Long to have his car back if he agreed to pay $50 a month as a part of a payment plan.
Long adhered to the payment plan, according to court documents, but parked his car at a friend’s house in the nearby city of Brier because he feared it would be towed. He continued to sleep outside in Seattle for work, according to SeattlePI.
Living without the shelter of his car wasn’t easy, he told WSB-TV2.
"I had eight colds that year and pneumonia, to boot," he said. "And I normally have only one or two colds a year."
On Friday, judge Shaffer ruled that the city’s impoundment of the car — and fines stemming from it — violated the Homestead Act and the state constitution, arguing that the vehicle served as Long’s home and the fines were excessive, The Stranger reported. She also said the city would have to give back any of the money Long already sent as a part of his payment plan.
Assistant City Attorney Michael Ryan argued in court that decision could create future problems for officers trying to enforce parking rules in Seattle, according to the Times.
“Someone could park right here in front of the court house on Fifth Avenue, and we couldn’t tow them, or if we did tow them, we couldn’t put them in impound,” he argued as a hypothetical. “We’d have to put them somewhere else and we couldn’t charge them at all for it, because if we did, we’d violate the constitution if they were living in that vehicle.”
But Ali Bilow, one of Long’s attorneys, told the Times that she and her colleagues “believe this case has a lot of implications for other people using their vehicles as homes.
“I think Seattle municipal judges should follow this ruling,” she said, “and take a hard look when homeless individuals, who are living in their vehicles, are charged these really excessive fees.”
Around 20 percent of the homeless population in Kings County live in their cars, according to The Stranger. Seattle officials haven’t announced if they will challenge the ruling.