Jul 27, 2023 - News

Judge finds parts of Seattle's encampment removal policy unconstitutional

A tent sits on the edge of an embankment near a bridge and other roads with the Seattle skyline in the far background.

Makeshift tent encampments are shown near Seattle's Jose Rizal Bridge in June 2019. Photo: Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A King County judge has ruled that some of Seattle's protocols for removing homeless encampments are unconstitutional and can amount to "cruel punishment." City officials, however, say the legal issue is far from resolved.

What's happening: In a partial summary judgment earlier this month, King County Superior Court Judge David Keenan wrote that Seattle officials have defined "obstruction" of public property "so broadly that the City can invade unhoused people's privacy rights without notice, offers of shelter, and property preservation" — steps that would normally be required.

Why it matters: The judge's order may end up limiting one of the administrative tools the city has frequently used to remove homeless encampments in public places.

  • Mayor Bruce Harrell has identified clearing encampments as a priority for his administration since taking office two years ago.

The big picture: Encampment removals have become flashpoints in many U.S. cities, with federal judges ruling in cases out of Idaho and Oregon that cities can't punish people for sleeping outside when there aren't adequate alternative places for them to go.

Background: In Seattle, the partial summary judgment issued this month came out of a 2019 lawsuit filed on behalf of two unhoused Seattle residents, who said in court filings that their homes and belongings were removed and discarded without notice when they left for short periods of time.

  • Those incidents resulted in them losing important items such as medications, family heirlooms, work tools and clothing, according to their complaint.

What they're saying: In his order, Keenan said that Seattle's over-broad rules allow tents to be classified as "obstructions" that can be abruptly removed even if they're not actually blocking sidewalks or access to public spaces like playgrounds.

  • For people living in the tents, the practical effect is "no different than if one returned to their single-family stick-built house in any Seattle neighborhood after a personal errand to find that it had vanished," Keenan wrote.

The other side: City officials plan to appeal the judgment, which was issued as part of the ongoing lawsuit, Tim Robinson, spokesperson for the Seattle City Attorney's office, wrote in an email to Axios Seattle.

  • "This case is not complete and there are further proceedings that must occur," Robinson wrote.
  • The city has denied violating the rights of people experiencing homelessness. In a 2019 court filing, the city wrote that its encampment removal program "addresses health, safety, and operational concerns related to unauthorized encampments while also respecting the interests and rights of unhoused persons."

What we're watching: It's unclear when or how the city's approach to encampment removals might change in response to the judge's ruling.

  • The judge didn't issue an injunction blocking the city from continuing its practices, La Rond Baker, legal director for the ACLU of Washington, said in a written statement to Axios Seattle.
  • Still, "we assume the City will not want to continue to rely on a policy that has been declared unconstitutional by sweeping individuals and property who are not actually obstructions without offers of shelter," Baker said in the statement.

What's next: The underlying case is scheduled to go to trial in September.


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