Supreme Court Refuses to Revive Law Banning Homeless From Sleeping Outdoors

December 16, 2019 Updated: December 16, 2019
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The Supreme Court on Monday refused to hear a city’s bid to overturn a lower court decision that prevented officials from prosecuting the homeless for sleeping outdoors when no other shelter is available.

The appeal from Boise, Idaho, asked the top court to overturn a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that found a city ordinance prosecuting people for camping or sleeping on the streets violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment if “there is a greater number of homeless individuals in [the jurisdiction] than the number of available beds [in shelters].”

The Supreme Court’s decision is considered a victory for advocates of people who are homeless as it allows the lower court’s decision to stand, but the court’s refusal to take up the case is also viewed as a setback for local and state governments who are trying to address the homelessness crisis in their locale.

Theane Evangelis, counsel for Boise, said in a statement in August that “the 9th Circuit’s decision harms the very people it purports to protect.”

“It takes away an important tool cities have to stop the proliferation of permanent encampments, which undermine cities’ efforts to provide shelter and services to the most vulnerable,” she said.

According to a White House report (pdf) on the state of homelessness in the United States in September, over half a million Americans go homeless in a single night across the country. Among those, 35 percent—or just under 200,000—are found sleeping unsheltered on the streets such as on sidewalks, parks, cars, and abandoned buildings. Moreover, it also found that unsheltered homelessness rates are highest in cities on the west coast such as San Fransico and Los Angeles.

The case was initiated by six individuals who were cited or convicted by Boise’s public camping ordinance between 2007 and 2009.

In the ruling in September 2018, which was then amended in April, a panel of judges in the Ninth Circuit Court upheld a principle that the “Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of one’s status or being.”

Boise’s attorneys argued in their petition to the Supreme Court that the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision essentially created a “de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks.”

It also argued that public encampments result in “crime and violence, incubated disease, and created environmental hazards that threaten the lives and well-being both of those living on the streets and the public at large” and that allowing them threatens a host of laws enacted by cities to regulate public health and safety.

The attorneys said as a result of the ruling, “many municipalities have abandoned efforts to contain the threats to public health and safety posed by encampments rather than face litigation and potential civil liability.”

The city was supported by many states, cities, and associations who filed friend-of-the-court briefs warning about the consequences of the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling.

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