The Supreme Court revokes the rights of the homeless in a new decision

The Supreme Court on Friday overturned two decisions by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that granted significant protections to the homeless from penalties for sleeping outdoors.

The decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson will make it easier for states and cities to ban homeless people from sleeping outdoors with as little as a blanket while punishing them with civil fines and criminal penalties, including jail time. Homeless advocates believe the decision could lead to new anti-homeless laws that effectively force homeless people out of the states and cities where they live without offering them alternatives.

The case came from Grants Pass, Oregon, a small town with a population of about 40,000, where three homeless people — Gloria Johnson, John Logan and Debra Blake, who has since died — challenged city ordinances passed in 2013 aimed at removing the the homeless population from the city. The ordinances, billed as an anti-camping restriction, prohibited people from sleeping outdoors with even a blanket. The plaintiffs argued that the law was enforced against a distinct category of individuals, the homeless, who have no other options as to where to sleep.

Their challenge was based on a 2018 decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise that blocked the city of Idaho from banning all outdoor sleeping as a form of cruel and unusual punishment under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. Ninth Circuit courts then extended Martin to block numerous state and city projects aimed at restricting homeless outdoor sleeping and camping. In Grants Pass, the 9th Circuit ruled that Martin prevented the city from issuing escalating civil fines to homeless people for sleeping outside with as little as a blanket.

However, the Supreme Court overturned those decisions, holding that the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment should not be extended to laws restricting homeless people from sleeping outdoors.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court ruled that “generally applicable” laws such as those against camping could not qualify as cruel and unusual punishment.

“Grants Pass’ general camping ordinances do not criminalize status. The public camping laws prohibit actions taken by any person, regardless of status. It does not matter whether the defendant is a person currently experiencing homelessness, a backpacker on vacation, or a student abandoning their dormitory to camp in protest on the lawn of a municipal building,” the decision read.

Justices Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett joined the opinion, as did Chief Justice John Roberts, while Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion.

In overturning Martin and Grants Pass, the Supreme Court found that the homeless do not constitute a class of immutable status affording protection from cruel and unusual punishment. In Martin, the 9th Circuit had relied on the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Robinson v. California that found California’s ban on drug addicts to be cruel and unusual punishment because it amounted to a status-based punishment that made it impossible to exist legally. as a person in the state.

But the Supreme Court said the situation in Grants Pass was not comparable.

“Public camping ordinances like the ones before us bear no resemblance to the law at issue in Robinson,” Gorsuch wrote. “Rather than criminalizing status alone, Grants Pass prohibits acts such as ‘occupying a campsite’ on public property ‘for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place of residence.'”

A wide array of states and cities, including Democratic-controlled California and Republican-controlled Idaho, had weighed in briefly in the case to argue that the court should either overturn or limit the 9th Circuit’s decisions in Martin and Grants Pass. The Justice Department argued before the court that Martin should be limited to upholding certain Eighth Amendment protections for the homeless while allowing municipalities to police outdoor sleeping more strictly than 9th Circuit precedent allows.

Now, states and cities can police homeless people with much greater latitude, including banning nearly everyone from sleeping outdoors. Advocates argue that the homeless could now be left without a place to sleep or live in the communities where they live. If cities and states implement systems like Grants Pass that aim to completely remove homeless people from their borders, the homeless may have nowhere to go and effectively be banned from existing.

In a stinging dissentJustice Sonia Sotomayor addressed the problem that many homeless people will face.

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” Sotomayor wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Elena Kagan and Ketanji Brown Jackson. “For some people, the only option is to sleep outside.”

The dissent acknowledged that cities and states have an interest in maintaining public health and safety, but criticized the majority for prioritizing those interests at the expense of homeless individuals.

“It is possible to recognize and balance the problems facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles,” Sotomayor wrote. “Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local authorities, leaving the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or get arrested.”


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