Supreme Court Allows Lower Court’s Ruling Overturning Boise Vagrancy Law

December 16, 2019 Updated: December 17, 2019
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WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court turned away a legal appeal on Dec. 16 that aimed to restore Boise, Idaho’s laws banning homeless outdoor camping, which a lower court had struck down as violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The ruling, which may hinder local governments’ ability to combat vagrancy, came as the consequences of allowing the homeless to set up camp in public places produces negative headlines in California and elsewhere almost daily. San Francisco, for example, with its famously lax homeless policies, has become known as a once-beautiful city that is now overrun with public defecation and rampant crime.

As is its custom, the Supreme Court gave no reasons for its decision in the case cited as Boise v. Martin.

The litigation began more than a decade ago when respondents, six current or former homeless residents of Boise, filed a legal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, claiming the city violated the Eighth Amendment by making it a crime for homeless individuals who lacked any available shelter space to sleep outside (pdf).

Boise’s attorneys had said the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down the local law created “a de facto right to live on sidewalks and in parks” and that it would handicap efforts by more than 1,600 communities in Western states to enforce similar laws.

Those opposed to the law said the 9th Circuit acted properly in blocking the law, which allowed officials to charge homeless people with a crime for sleeping outdoors when there was no available space in shelters.

The circuit court upheld “the ought-to-be uncontroversial principle that a person may not be charged with a crime for engaging in activity that is simply a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human,” lawyers said.

Like many localities across the United States, Boise regulates camping and sleeping in public places to make sure these areas remain safe, accessible, and sanitary for the continued use of residents, visitors, and wildlife, the city argued in a brief filed with the court.

The restrictions on camping and sleeping are part of the city’s “effort to address, and preempt, the proliferation of dangerous encampments,” which “are often breeding grounds for crime, violence, and disease, [and] pose grave threats to public health and safety.”

Boise has a camping ordinance that makes it a misdemeanor “for any person to use any of the streets, sidewalks, parks or public places as a camping place at any time.”

Camping is defined to include “the use of public property as a temporary or permanent place of dwelling, lodging or residence, or as a living accommodation at any time between sunset and sunrise, or as a sojourn.”

A disorderly conduct ordinance forbids “[any] person” from “[occupying], lodging or sleeping in any building, structure or place, whether public or private … without the permission of the owner or person entitled to possession or in control thereof.”

Allowing encampments to take hold has serious ramifications, the brief stated. A large public encampment took root in 2014 in a city-owned skate park used by young people. This led to trash, rotting food, human waste, and a wave of citations for drug and alcohol-related offenses and physical assaults among campers, including one murder in which a camper beat another to death.

One of the original plaintiffs, Pamela Hawkes, told The New York Times she was happy with the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“I think it’s finally time that cities start focusing on the topic of homelessness as a whole and not halfway,” she said.