Seattle v. Long
Stephen Long, an adult member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Flathead Nation, was living in his truck when his residence was impounded by the City of Seattle for a parking violation. Mr. Long, whose income ranges from $300 to $700 per month, was ordered to pay over $500 to retrieve his truck from the City. On review, the Washington Court of Appeals ruled this penalty met the requirements of the Excessive Fines Clause without giving any consideration to Mr. Long’s culpability or individual circumstances.
Juvenile Law Center, joined by sixteen other advocacy organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Long in the Washington Supreme Court. Our brief urged the Court to adopt an Excessive Fines Clause proportionality test that accounts for individual circumstances, including youth. We argued that a one-size-fits-all test for excessive fines will have devastating impacts on youth due to their diminished culpability and lowered ability to pay, and will disproportionately harm Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth. Our brief emphasized the historical use of financial penalties to maintain racial oppression, the racial disparities in the legal system which are amplified by fines and fees, and the longstanding, state-facilitated racial wealth gap that makes fines and fees more likely to be unaffordable to Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.
The Washington Supreme Court held that ability to pay must be considered as part of an excessiveness inquiry under the Eighth Amendment. It found that both the impoundment of Mr. Long’s truck and the imposition of hundreds of dollars of associated fees were punitive and unconstitutionally excessive. The Court emphasized the importance of such an analysis in light of the nation’s “severe housing crisis,” driven by “volatile housing markets, uncertain social safety nets, colonialism, slavery, and discriminative housing practices” and exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.