Appeals Court Expands Homestead Act to Include Towing Payment Plans for Vehicles Used as Principal Residence

May 5, 2020

On May 5, 2020, the Washington Court of Appeals issued a decision that expands the scope of the state's Homestead Act by applying it, for the first time, to local government efforts to tow vehicles in which homeless people reside. If this decision stands, it will have significant implications for local jurisdictions responsible for parking enforcement, potentially limiting the ability of cities and counties to recover towing costs and enforce parking ordinances.

In City of Seattle v. Long, Division I of the Court of Appeals ruled that the City of Seattle violated the Homestead Act when it towed a homeless person's truck and withheld that truck subject to auction unless he paid the impoundment costs or agreed to a payment plan. Steven Long had argued that the City's actions violated the Homestead Act as well as the state and federal constitutions. Division I of the Court of Appeals rejected Long's constitutional arguments but agreed that the City's actions had violated the Homestead Act and ruled that the City's payment plan was void.

Division I rejected the City's argument that, to protect a truck as a "homestead" under the Homestead Act, Long needed to file a declaration of homestead under RCW 6.13.040. Division I also rejected the City's argument that its payment plan was not the same as a "forced sale," reasoning that "state statute, not the registered owner, authorizes the sale of the vehicle." While the Court specifically stated that its decision does not prohibit the City from charging a vehicle owner costs associated with towing and impoundment, it said that if the vehicle is the owner’s principal residence, then the City may not withhold the vehicle under the threat of a forced sale. It appears that this limitation will apply regardless of whether the local jurisdiction was aware that the owner was living in the vehicle at the time of the tow.

It is unclear whether the City of Seattle will appeal the decision.

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