SEATTLE—This morning, the Washington Supreme Court will hear argument in City of Seattle v. Long, a case concerning the Excessive Fines Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court will consider whether the clause prohibits the city of Seattle from imposing a $547 charge on a homeless man after the city impounded the truck in which he lived. It is an opportunity for the court to define the boundaries of the Excessive Fines Clause after the U.S. Supreme Court held that the constitutional provision restricted state and local governments in Timbs v. Indiana in 2019.
The case concerns Steven Long, who was forced to live in his truck after losing his home. The truck, which did not work properly, was parked in a secluded gravel lot owned by the city. In 2016, Seattle police were dispatched to the area for an unrelated complaint. While there, police ticketed Long for parking in one spot for more than 72 hours. A few days later, a private towing company that contracted with the city towed his truck, leaving Long to sleep on the streets. He was eventually fined $44 and charged $547 for the cost of impounding his truck. He appealed the impound charge to the Seattle Municipal Court, which found the charge to be an unconstitutionally excessive fine. The King County Superior Court agreed, and the city sought review before the Washington Court of Appeals. That court reversed the Superior Court. Long appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case earlier this year.
One of the most significant issues before the Washington Supreme Court is whether a court must consider the individual circumstances of an offender in determining whether a particular fine is excessive. In its briefing before the Supreme Court, the city argues that so long as the government approves the amount of the fine and it reflects the cost of enforcement, it can impose that fine on an indigent person.
“The city’s position is essentially that there is no difference between imposing a fine of $547 on a homeless individual living in a truck or imposing it on Bill Gates,” said Bill Maurer, the Managing Attorney of the Seattle office of the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represented Tyson Timbs in the U.S. Supreme Court case that bears his name. “But the purpose of the Excessive Fines Clause is to prevent the government from pushing a defendant to the wall. There is no way to prevent that unless the courts consider the financial circumstances of a defendant.”
IJ filed a friend of the court brief supporting Long on its behalf as well as on behalf of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Oregon Law Center, Equal Justice Under Law, the Policy Advocacy Clinic of the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, and the MacArthur Justice Center. The case is one of the first state supreme court cases in the country to address the contours of the Excessive Fines Clause. The only other state supreme courts in the country to consider the issue post-Timbs—Indiana and Colorado—have both concluded that courts must consider a defendant’s circumstances in determining whether a penalty is unconstitutionally excessive.
“For someone forced to live in their vehicle, a $547 fine might as well be a $547,000 fine—a homeless individual can pay neither,” continued Maurer. “The city should reconsider whether it should be fining someone for the crime of being so poor that they have to live in an inoperable vehicle.”
The oral argument will be streamed online and broadcast by TVW at 9:00 a.m. PDT: http://www.tvw.org/.