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News / Northwest

Washington Supreme Court deals blow to lawsuit seeking to protect people living in vehicles

Justices rule city of Lacey didn't violate state Constitution

By Greg Kim, The Seattle Times
Published: July 10, 2024, 6:02pm

Washington’s Supreme Court dealt a blow earlier this month to a lawsuit seeking to protect people living in their vehicles. The court ruled the city of Lacey did not violate the state constitutional right to travel by passing laws limiting recreational vehicle and trailer parking on public land.

The case, Potter v. Lacey, will go back to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which will rule on the constitutionality of Lacey’s parking laws on other grounds. It is one of a few court battles to be decided since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is not cruel or unusual punishment to fine or jail homeless people for sleeping outside in public places. How these cases play out will determine how cities are allowed to deal with people living outside.

As officials across the country face increasing pressure to clean up streets amid a growing homelessness crisis, more cities have passed anti-camping and parking ordinances. In turn, advocates and lawyers have increasingly turned to courts to challenge those laws after failures at the ballot box.

That’s what happened in Lacey.

In 2019, Lacey passed two ordinances banning camping on city property and limiting public parking for recreational vehicles to four hours per day.

Jack Potter, a homeless man in his 60s, had been living in a trailer hitched to his truck parked in a lot behind Lacey City Hall. After Lacey passed its laws, he was cleared out of the lot and moved to Olympia. In 2020, he sued the city, claiming Lacey had violated his constitutional right to travel and free movement.

Potter’s attorneys argued that Lacey’s law effectively banished him from the city where he had lived for nearly 20 years before becoming homeless in 2016.

A district court judge ruled in favor of Lacey in 2021, saying that the city’s parking law applied equally to all people and that the constitutional right to travel does not include the right to live in a certain manner and was thus inapplicable in this case.

Potter and his attorneys appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which passed the case to the state Supreme Court to evaluate whether the RV parking ordinance violated Potter’s state intrastate travel rights.

The state Supreme Court definitively said it did not.

“Potter has failed to show that Lacey’s parking ordinance violates his asserted state constitutional right to reside in the manner that he has chosen,” the state Supreme Court wrote in their opinion.

The city of Lacey declined to comment on the state Supreme Court’s decision.

Potter’s lead attorney James Lobsenz simply said he was disappointed in the result.

The National Homelessness Law Center called the ruling inhumane.

“Arresting, fining people, and impounding their vehicles for trying to survive is expensive, counterproductive, and cruel,” said Eric Tars, senior policy director for the law center.

Sodo Business Improvement Area Executive Director Erin Goodman supported the state Supreme Court’s opinion, which she saw as allowing cities to manage parking in a way that applies equally to everyone.

The case will be sent back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which will evaluate whether Lacey’s anti-parking ordinance violates the federal right to travel or the Fourth Amendment, which protects people from seizures by the government. Lacey’s ordinance allows the city to impound violators’ vehicles.

Several other legal battles that will further define how cities can remove tents and vehicles are ongoing in the state.

Last year, the King County Superior Court ruled the city of Seattle has been too broad in defining how and when it can clear homeless encampments without warning. Seattle said it would appeal that decision.

In January, Burien was sued for its homeless camping law on the basis that it violated the state constitution’s protections against cruel punishment.

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