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King County Sheriff explains enforcing SeaTac’s public camping ban but not Burien’s

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(The Center Square) – The cities of Burien and SeaTac have similar laws that make camping on public property a criminal offense, but the King County Sheriff’s Office explains why it is only enforcing one.

Burien is in the midst of a legal battle with the King County Sheriff’s Office regarding Ordinance 827, which effectively bans homeless people from living on any public property at any time. The city added an amendment that creates a 500-foot buffer zone around parks, libraries, schools, daycares, senior centers and makes it illegal for people to sleep overnight in those areas.

In response, King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall said that the city’s ordinance violates federal case law and that her office will not enforce the public camping portion of the ordinance until the constitutionality of the ordinance is resolved.

SeaTac also has a law that makes camping on public property a misdemeanor. However Burien Mayor Kevin Schilling points out a distinction between the two jurisdictions’ ordinances.

“In SeaTac, they give out $1,000 fines if you are breaking their ordinance [but] we don’t fine and we don’t jail,” Schilling said to The Center Square in a phone call. “So there is a huge difference there and they are not enforcing our [ordinance], but they are enforcing SeaTac’s.”

King County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Eric White told The Center Square that the City of SeaTac’s public camping law differs fundamentally from Burien’s recently adopted ordinance.

White said that Burien’s laws “include vague terms concerning what the city considers criminal conduct on public property and does not require notice on the locations where camping may be permissible, when no shelter space is available.”

In contrast, SeaTac’s law codifies specific locations where all camping is prohibited and includes terms that the sheriff’s office deems more clearly defined.

White added that Burien’s ordinance allows City Manager Adolfo Bailon the sole authority to create and change the map of where camping is prohibited. The city manager is not required to involve or even provide advanced notice to the community, the Burien City Council, or the police officers required to enforce the ordinance.

“The map creates the opportunity for arbitrary and capricious decisions that pose significant legal risk to the city and KCSO (including their employees) and significant adverse impacts to people who are unhoused,” White said. “SeaTac’s law is not believed to pose a potential violation to a person’s constitutional rights and is why KCSO enforces SeaTac’s public camping laws.”

Schilling countered, saying that a judge has not ruled the Burien’s law unconstitutional, therefore there is no legal basis to decline to enforce Ordinance 827.

Burien contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office for its own dedicated and shared personnel as part of an interlocal agreement between the two entities. The city’s 2024 adopted budget includes $16.7 million as part of a police contract with King County.

White noted that the King County Sheriff’s Office does enforce the prohibition of camping in city parks in both cities.

“In sum, KCSO believes that some of the differences in Burien’s ordinance violate the constitutional rights of residents and is why KCSO has not enforced Burien’s ordinance but does enforce SeaTac’s ordinance,” White concluded.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case out of Oregon on whether laws that punish homeless people with civil citations for camping on public property violate the Constitution’s protection from cruel and unusual punishment.