In a decision that sheds light on how police must respond when a vehicle in violation of some city parking ordinance also is a home for the owner, the Washington Supreme Court has determined that the fines and towing charges that routinely are generated can be unconstitutional.
Essentially, the ruling orders that a government must consider a person’s ability to pay to make certain that punishment does not stray into the unreasonable.
According to officials at the Institute for Justice the ruling means “depriving someone of their shelter – in this case a truck – constitutes an excessive fine under the U.S. Constitution.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled only a few years back that state and local governments are required to follow the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which bans excessive fines.
“Today’s decision is a victory for every Washingtonian,” said Bill Maurer, of the Institute for Justice’s Washington office, “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.”
The case involved Steven Long, who lost his housing and was forced to live in his truck.
The vehicle then broke down and he parked it on an out-of-the-way gravel lot owned by the city of Seattle.
Police soon found him, told him he could not park in one location for more than 72 hours, and eventually ordered the truck impounded and Long fined $500.
Long fought the case, arguing that the penalties, given his life circumstances, were excessive.
Two lower courts, the King County Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals, said they were happy with the structure for fines.
But the Washington Supreme Court unanimously reversed.
“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 IJ reported.
“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 [tenet] of the excessive fines clause is to protect individuals against fines so oppressive as to deprive them of their livelihood.”
“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,” Maurer said.
The ruling said Long’s truck would qualify for a homestead exemption, but that the case had not reached that point because the city had not yet demanded payment.
“After contesting the infraction in municipal court, the magistrate imposed, and Long agreed to, a payment plan to reimburse the city for the impoundment costs… Seattle is Long’s creditor to whom he owes a $547.12 debt. At this point, however, there is no evidence that the city has attempted to collect on Long’s debt.”
Further, it said a city does have a right to impound a vehicle under certain circumstances.
But it said the city’s impoundment and costs in this case “are partially punitive and constitute fines.” And it said fines and punishments must be proportional to 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,’” the court said.
The court found, “Many state courts applied this understanding…”
With that caution, the court also noted, “The offense of overstaying one’s welcome in a specific location is not particularly egregious.” And the city even had suspended enforcement of the limit during CVODI.
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