Local governments will have a harder time forcing homeless people out of public spaces after a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that government cannot criminalize homeless people for surviving in public without providing alternative places for them to go.
Judges on the 9th Circuit upheld a previous decision by a panel of judges who found that “ordinances that criminalize sleeping, sitting, or lying in all public spaces, when no alternative sleeping space is available, violate the Eighth Amendment” prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision was cause for celebration among advocates for people experiencing homelessness who have long held that the enforcement of ordinances that penalize people for sitting, lying or sleeping in public spaces is a criminalization of poverty and homelessness.
“Criminally punishing homeless people for sleeping on the street when they have nowhere else to go is inhumane, and we applaud the Court for ruling that it is also unconstitutional,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty in a press release. “It’s time for Boise to stop trying to hide its homelessness problem with unconstitutional ordinances, and start proposing real solutions.”
Six people experiencing homelessness sued the city of Boise, Idaho, in 2009, challenging an ordinance that banned camping in public spaces. Such a law constituted cruel and unusual punishment, the plaintiffs argued, because the homeless shelters in the city were full.
Over the past decade, the case has worked its way through the courts. Last September, the city lost its case in front of a panel of 9th Circuit judges, and the wider body voted on April 1 against accepting an appeal before the entire 9th Circuit.
Not all were in favor.
Judge Milan Smith dissented from the opinion of the court, calling the panel’s opinion a “misreading” of Eighth Amendment precedent. Milan argued that judges were overstepping their legal authority.
“By creating new constitutional rights out of whole cloth, my well-meaning, but unelected, colleagues improperly inject themselves into the role of public policymaking,” Smith wrote.
Boise’s ordinance against camping in public places was not criminalizing homelessness, but prohibiting the act of sleeping outside for everyone, Smith reasoned.
Of course, the majority of people with access to housing do not sleep outside, so laws against such life-sustaining activities as sleep fall upon people who cannot afford housing of their own.
The ruling is significant for people living in the nine-state territory of the 9th Circuit which includes cities with high rates of homelessness such as Seattle and Los Angeles.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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