The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by Boise to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited authorities in the Idaho city from prosecuting homeless people for staying outside if a bed at an emergency shelter is not available.
The justices left in place a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that fining or jailing homeless people for sleeping in public or unauthorized places violates the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment, a decision the city said threatens public health and safety.
The case centered on two Boise ordinances that prohibit camping or “disorderly conduct” by lodging or sleeping in public. The city said it needed to enforce the ordinances to prevent the formation of encampments that can lead to unsanitary conditions and crimes such as drug dealing and gang activity, and to keep public spaces accessible for residents, visitors and wildlife.
The dispute began when six people – Robert Martin, Robert Anderson, Lawrence Lee Smith, Basil Humphrey, Janet Bell and Pamela Hawkes, all current or former homeless Boise residents – sued the city in 2009, arguing that the laws violated their constitutional rights.
They had each been prosecuted under the ordinances and fined between $25 and $75. Five were sentenced to time served, while Hawkes twice served one day in jail.
The 9th Circuit last year ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits punishing homeless individuals if there are more of them than available shelter beds. The ruling allowed the plaintiffs to seek an injunction against enforcement of the city’s ordinances.
“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the appeals court said.
SCOTUS won’t solve a national problem of homeless people
While federal statistics show homelessness trending downward nationwide, a number of American cities have struggled with vagrancy ― and the attendant toll of human waste.
Bloomberg Businessweek reported last November that at least 10 West Coast cities, from Los Angeles to Seattle, have in recent years declared states of emergency because of out-of-control homelessness.
Portland police told Pluralist in September that they’re powerless to stop homeless people from relieving themselves in public. The complication, he said, is that an Oregon court last year barred authorities from using a state law in cases of public urination and defecation.
“It is a topic officers that work downtown hear about somewhat regularly,” said Sgt. Kevin Allen, a public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau.
The complication, he said in an email exchange, is that an Oregon court last year barred authorities from using a state law in cases of public urination and defecation.
Earlier in September, business owners in one Seattle neighborhood told local media that a single homeless woman staying in a nearby illegal encampment has been terrorizing their block with her feces for months.
Seattle police said they’re empowered to punish people for public defecation, but only if they catch the person in the act. They said no one on the block had been arrested or cited.
“It’s a health hazard,” grocer Mike Sandberg said to KOMO News. “It’s just something I can’t believe is allowed to happen. It seems like there is no law.”
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Will Dunham; Pluralist contributed to this report.)