WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a case on whether municipal ordinances barring homeless people from camping on public property violate constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The justices will review a decision by the only appellate court in Grants Pass, Oregon, which found that it was prohibited by the Constitution’s 8th Amendment.
The decision in question was issued in 2022 by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and applies to all nine states within its jurisdiction, including California. Several of these states have large homeless populations.
Among those asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court are local officials in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and other cities.
The appeals court ruled 2-1 that Grants Pass, about 250 miles south of Portland, “cannot enforce its anti-camping laws against homeless people to sleep outside with rudimentary protection from the elements or sleep indoors” at night, when there is nowhere else in town to go.
The court added that the ruling only applies in situations where homeless people “engage in behaviors necessary to protect themselves from the elements in the absence of shelter.”
The decision was met with considerable criticism in the appeals court itself, and the full panel ruled against reconsideration by a 14-13 vote.
One dissenter, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain, wrote that the decision was “a dubious holding based on a fanciful interpretation of the 8th Amendment.” The decision has the effect of “paralyzing local communities from addressing the pressing issue of homelessness and usurping the policy powers that our federal system of government leaves to the democratic process.”
Grants Pass lawyers defended the city’s actions, saying there was “nothing cruel or unusual about a civil penalty for violating the usual restrictions on public campgrounds.”
The rules in question cover sleeping or camping on public property, including sidewalks, streets, bridges and city parks. Penalties can include fines of up to several hundred dollars and bans from removing people from public property.
The case arose after a group of homeless people protested the implementation of the ordinances. The city’s plan is to “drive its homeless residents into neighboring jurisdictions by making it impossible for them to live in Grants Pass without civil or criminal penalties,” attorneys for the plaintiffs said in court filings.
Homeless people are being punished for “simply existing,” advocates added.
In 2019, the Supreme Court formed a 6-3 conservative majority before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was appointed, refused A similar case is underway in Idaho, where the city of Boise is trying to enforce a criminal ban on camping on public property.
In that case, the 9th Circuit ruled in 2018 that such charges would violate the 8th Amendment. In a 2022 decision, the same court extended that reasoning to civil penalties, and the city asked the Supreme Court to intervene.