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Taking the Long Road: The Excessive Fines Clause as a Tool for Protecting Washington’s Unsheltered Population

By October 1, 2023October 31st, 2023No Comments

Abstract: Over the last decade, Washington State has seen a substantial increase in its unhoused population and an increase in laws that harm this group. Many of these laws subject unhoused and unsheltered people to fines, fees, and forfeitures that are exceedingly difficult for them to afford. The ExcessiveFinesClauses in the United States and Washington Constitutions protect citizens from fines deemed constitutionally excessive and could be used to shield unsheltered people from the burden of paying unjust fines they cannot afford. In City of Seattle v. Long, the Washington State Supreme Court analyzed the ability to pay of a person who lived in his vehicle when deciding whether the fines imposed on him violated the state or federal Excessive Fines Clauses. This Note contends that the Long decision offers a strong constitutional foundation for arguments against the enforcement of many laws and policies that adversely affect vehicle residents and unsheltered people. Part I reviews the housing crisis in Washington and the legal ramifications unhoused people face. Part II discusses the historical jurisprudence of the Washington State and the federal Excessive Fines Clauses and their relation to a person’s ability to pay. Part II also outlines the Long case and how it fits into the framework of the Excessive Fines Clause. Finally, Part III argues that an expansive reading of the Long decision is both constitutionally appropriate in light of current jurisprudence and an important tool for advocating for unsheltered people.

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