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Homeless people can be fined for sleeping outside, Supreme Court rules
By Court House News @ 5:21 PM :: 713 Views :: Homelessness

Homeless people can be fined for sleeping outside, Supreme Court rules 

The ruling could lead more cities to crack down on homeless encampments.

by Kelsey Reichmann, Court House News, June 28, 2024

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that a public sleeping ban in Grants Pass, Oregon did not unconstitutionally criminalize homelessness. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch said the Constitution did not allow federal judges to take responsibility for the complex public policy responses needed to address homelessness. 

“The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy,” the Donald Trump appointee wrote for the conservative supermajority

Justice Sonia Sotomayor disagreed. In a dissent joined by her liberal colleagues, Sotomayor said courts had a role in safeguarding constitutional liberties for the most vulnerable Americans. 

“The Constitution provides a baseline of rights for all Americans rich and poor, housed and unhoused,” the Barack Obama appointee wrote. “This Court must safeguard those rights even when, and perhaps especially when, doing so is uncomfortable or unpopular. Otherwise, ‘the words of the Constitution become little more than good advice.’”

The city of Grants Pass, Oregon implemented a public camping ordinance that prohibited sleeping on sidewalks, streets or alleyways at any time, fining violators $295. Individuals who racked up multiple infractions faced bans from public parks or criminal trespassing charges that carry jail time and hefty fees. 

Homeless people in Grants Pass found it impossible to comply with the law, citing the city’s lack of shelter beds. Two homeless residents, Gloria Johnson and John Logan, filed a class action against the city. 

Johnson and Logan claimed Grants Pass’s ordinances criminalized involuntary homelessness in violation of the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause. They relied on the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling in Robinson v. California, which held criminalizing the status of being a drug addict was unconstitutional.

Johnson and Logan claimed Robinson extended to homelessness, and two lower courts agreed. Although the Supreme Court hadn’t previously ruled on the issue, the Ninth Circuit issued its own precedent in Martin v. Boise that found fines and jail stints for public sleeping unconstitutional. 

After showing skepticism of Martin during oral arguments in April, the justices now rebuke the ruling. 

Gorsuch said Martin removed an important tool from policymakers’ toolbox needed to address complicated issues of housing and homelessness. 

The Eighth Amendment was intended to deter the nation from adopting 18th-century punishments like disemboweling, quartering, public dissection and burning alive, Gorsuch said. The Trump appointee said the amendment’s cruel and unusual prohibitions are siloed to punishments, making them a poor foundation for criminalizing a particular behavior. 

Gorsuch said the criminal punishments for public sleeping in Grants Pass do not qualify as cruel or unusual, noting that initial violations only trigger a civil fine and repeat offenses result in orders barring individuals from parks. 

“None of the city’s sanctions qualifies as cruel because none is designed to ‘superad[d]’ ‘terror, pain, or disgrace,’” Gorsuch wrote. “Nor are the city’s sanctions unusual, because similar punishments have been and remain among ‘the usual mode[s]’ for punishing offenses throughout the country.” 

The majority also rejected the argument that the ordinances criminalized involuntary homelessness. Gorsuch said this argument stretched Robinson to include actions undertaken with some 'mens rea' that might qualify as involuntary. But Robinson, Gorsuch said, was restricted to laws criminalizing mere status. 

Expanding Robinson, Gorsuch said, would allow federal judges to interfere with policy decisions that should be left to state and local leaders. 

Gorsuch said “a handful of federal judges” couldn’t “begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom of the American people” in deciding policy solutions for homelessness. 

Noting that sleeping is a biological necessity, Sotomayor said punishing people for whom sleeping outside is their only option punishes people for their status. 

“For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless,” Sotomayor said. “That is unconscionable and unconstitutional.” 

Sotomayor said the majority’s declaration that the ordinances do not criminalize status disregards their purpose, text and enforcement. She said homeless individuals without access to shelters could only comply with the ordinances by leaving Grants Pass. 

Sotomayor chastised the majority for being discombobulated by factual questions about defining involuntary homelessness. She said they should have looked to Martin for their answers. 

“The majority proclaims that this dissent ‘blinks the difficult questions,’” Sotomayor wrote. “The majority should open its eyes to available answers instead of throwing up its hands in defeat.”  

Undefeated, Sotomayor laid out possible paths challengers could still launch at the ordinances. She noted that Oregon recently passed a law constraining how municipalities punish homeless residents for public sleeping. 

There are also additional constitutional paths, Sotomayor said, questioning whether the ordinances violate the excessive fines clause or the due process clause. 

David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, said the court’s ruling was a tragic failure of governance and a step back in the fight against homelessness. 

“Punishing individuals for sleeping in public spaces when no alternative shelter is available is unjust, counterproductive, and has repeatedly been proven as ineffective by the broadest range of housing experts,” Dworkin said in a statement. 

Scout Katovich, staff attorney in the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, said it was hard to imagine a starker example of excessive punishment than jailing a person for sleeping. 

“We cannot arrest our way out of homelessness, and we will continue litigating against cities that are emboldened by this decision to treat unhoused people as criminals,” Katovich said in a statement. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon noted that the state has one of the highest and growing rates of homelessness. 

---30---

SA: Editorial: Homeless ruling informs Hawaii effort

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