Washington Supreme Court Finds Excessive Fines Unconstitutional

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 12, 2021

SEATTLE—Today, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that depriving someone of their shelter—in this case a truck—constitutes an excessive fine under the U.S. Constitution. The case, City of Seattle v. Long, No. 98824-2, comes after the U.S. Supreme Court held three years ago that state and local governments must abide the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which prohibits governments from levying excessive fines.

The case concerns Steven Long, who, like many Washingtonians, lost his housing and was forced to live in his truck. He parked it on an out-of-the-way gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle. When Seattle police responded to an unrelated call, they told Long he was violating Seattle law by parking in one location for more than 72 hours. Long’s truck was inoperable, so Seattle towed the truck and imposed over $500 in impound charges. Long appealed, arguing, among other things, that the impound charges were unconstitutionally excessive. Both the King County Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals concluded that the charges did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines.

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously disagreed and reversed the lower court orders. The court found that the impound charges were unconstitutionally excessive. Importantly, the court decided an open question in Washington law—whether a court must consider a defendant’s personal circumstances in deciding whether a fine is unconstitutionally excessive. The court held:

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 of the excessive fines clause is to protect individuals against fines so oppressive as to deprive them of their livelihood.

“Today’s decision is a victory for every Washingtonian,” said Bill Maurer, the Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice’s (IJ) Washington Office, who authored a friend-of-the-court brief in case. “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.”

Joining IJ’s brief were the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Oregon Law Center, Equal Justice Under Law, the Policy Advocacy Clinic and the MacArthur Justice Center.

Maurer continued: “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. IJ and its allies will continue to push state and federal courts across the country to halt the imposition of excessive fines, especially those imposed on the most vulnerable among us.”