WA State Patrol powerless to clear rest areas of illegal camping

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The state’s rest areas have become the latest battlefront over homeless encampments, and a recent State Supreme Court ruling has left the police no way to enforce the illegal camping laws.

The law governing rest areas is clear. You can stay at a rest area for up to eight hours. If your vehicle is broken down, you can stay up to 48 hours. Commercial rigs can stay up to 11 hours to meet federal rest guidelines.

Then why are some of Washington’s rest areas full of broken-down cars, derelict R-Vs, and appear more like campsites than rest areas?

I hit the Smokey Point rest areas a few weeks ago. It was full of people who were clearly breaking the law. There was garbage everywhere. Those rest areas have been closed this week for a deep cleaning.

Why aren’t State Troopers impounding those vehicles? It’s a question I get all the time from listeners. The State Patrol’s Chris Loftis explains why his troopers can’t enforce the law.  “Vehicles that have individuals who are living in those vehicles are actually considered homesteads, and it just challenges our ability to ticket, … impound, and … tow,” he said.

A 2021 State Supreme Court ruling (Seattle vs. Long) changed the game. You might remember Steven Long, a Seattle handyman living in his RV. The city towed it and levied fines he couldn’t pay. The court ruled impounding his primary residence was a violation of his rights.

Loftis said that has left his troopers unable to enforce the law, and people populating the rest area know it.  “Some people are aware of that, so at 48 hours they just move to another spot … if they’re on the northbound they go to the southbound, and they change,” Loftis said.  “In some ways, you have encampment disguised as parking.”

But Loftis said the State Patrol hasn’t just thrown up its hands.  “We check those rest stops every day,” he said.  “Those folks are contacted every day.  They’re asked to move along every day.  Their welfare is checked on by patrol staff every single day.”

Loftis said the State Patrol is sympathetic to the over-arching homeless issue. Troopers have to balance public safety with treating those camping with the dignity they deserve.  “Moving people out of those situations is the greater human dignity, and that’s what we are working towards so that we can help those people transition to a place that is safer for them and is more dignified as a human being,” he said.

And being heavy-handed on enforcement isn’t the answer.  “We are never going to fine, ticket or tow our troubles away,” Loftis said.

So where does that leave the public?

Listeners have reached out to me saying they don’t feel safe at rest areas now. Loftis said you should call 9-1-1 if you see something illegal or dangerous, and troopers will make arrests if necessary. “If they see anything that is unsafe or some sort of illegal activity that is going to be hurtful or harmful to those around them, they are are going to respond like they would anytime,” he said.

And until this all gets ironed out, Loftis says the State Patrol will just keep doing its best:

“We’re doing the best we can to keep everybody safe including those that are in the RVs including those that are just passing through and including our people, but until we can work out these legal situations our enforcement capacity is just simply challenged,” he said.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.



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