LACEY — The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance that restricts how long recreational vehicles can park in the city of Lacey.
The case hinges on whether Lacey's parking restrictions — which are targeted specifically at RVs and limit parking to no more than four hours on all city streets — are so restrictive that they effectively make it impossible for a person living in an RV to exist in Lacey.
Several civil rights organizations in Washington and California have joined the lawsuit, Potter vs. Lacey, filing an amicus brief that characterizes Lacey's parking ordinance as part of a national pattern of anti-homeless laws. Half of U.S. cities have at least one law prohibiting living in vehicles, according to the National Homelessness Law Center, one of the organizations that filed the brief.
A lower court sided with the city of Lacey in March, on the basis that the threat of impounding a vehicle did not constitute an excessive penalty under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiff, Jack Potter, then appealed the case to the ninth circuit.
Lacey's law was enacted in 2019 with the purpose of removing a growing number of RVs parked in a lot adjacent to its city hall. It authorizes the city to issue $35 fines and impound vehicles parked longer than four fours. Potter's lawyers have argued that such a sweeping restriction makes it impossible for an RV resident to legally exist on public property in Lacey, effectively banishing homeless RV residents from the city.
"Even if innocuously framed as 'parking restrictions,' restrictions like [Lacey's] punish people for lacking lawful and stable places to park their vehicle homes," reads the brief, which was filed jointly by the National Homelessness Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Columbia Legal Services, Disability Rights Advocates, and Disability Rights California.
With just under 55,000 residents, Lacey is nearly equal to Olympia in population, yet it lacks many of the social services that its neighboring city provides. There are no homeless shelters in Lacey.
After the law's passage, several dozen RV residents were cited and removed from the area by police.
Jack Potter, the plaintiff in the case, was one of them. Potter, who was 63 years old when the case was filed, has lived in Lacey on and off over the past two decades. The lawsuit describes him as a veteran of the Army and Navy, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, and, later in life, a perpetrator of sexual abuse.
In 2014, Potter took a plea deal where he pleaded guilty to third-degree assault with sexual motivation to avoid a trial in a case where he was charged with molesting the daughter of his then-girlfriend, according to court records. For much of the period between 2013-2015, Potter was incarcerated.
Potter bounced around various homes in Lacey, including a mobile home, a fourplex, and later a friend's home which he shared with his late partner. He last lived at a two-story house on Martin Way that he operated as a veteran's homeless outreach charity with the permission of the owner. He left that house and bought a 23-foot travel trailer in April 2018, eventually settling in the Lacey City Hall parking lot.
After the Lacey ordinance was passed in 2019, Potter was issued a citation and police threatened to impound his car, according to the lawsuit and The Olympian's previous reporting. He has since moved to at least five different locations in Thurston County, and according to the appeal has been forced off of Deschutes Parkway by the state Department of Enterprise Services, removed from a city of Olympia roadway, and ticketed by Olympia Police for parking in a private lot.
Potter's case attempts to build on the precedent created by the landmark 2019 ruling Martin vs Boise, where a Ninth Circuit judge ruled that municipal governments cannot punish people from sleeping on public property unless they offer adequate alternative shelter. Enforcing laws against people for sitting in public spaces, the judge in that case ruled, violates the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, and amounts to criminalizing homelessness.
A similar ruling out of Grants Pass, Oregon, last year offered momentum to organizations such as the Northwest Justice Project, a Washington legal aid nonprofit that brought Potter's case against Lacey last year and is now seeking to attack other laws that target homeless people.
The material facts in the Lacey case differ from Martin v Boise because it concerns vehicle parking rather than camping. So far the lower courts have not found the Eighth Amendment argument compelling in vehicle cases.
In a two-page ruling earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Bryan sided with the city of Lacey, ruling that charging a $35 fine and threatening to impound vehicles parked for longer than four hours did not meet the standard of "grossly disproportionate" punishment under the Eighth Amendment. The judge also ruled that the Eighth Amendment did not apply because the punishment is civil rather than criminal.
In the appeal, Potter's lawyers argue that the district court's interpretation of the Eighth Amendment only applying in criminal cases was incorrect, and that the fact that Potter lives in his vehicle should be taken into account when judging whether the punishment of impounding it meets the standard for cruel and unusual punishment.
There is some precedent for those claims.
Washington's state Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of Stephen Long, a man who was living in his vehicle when it was impounded by the city of Seattle for violating a 72-hour parking limit. The court ruled in that case that because the vehicle was his home, impounding it and charging him fees was a disproportionate punishment as defined by the Eighth Amendment.