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An important decision was recently issued from the United States Supreme Court related to the homeless crisis. A summary of the decision is provided below.  Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin has been directly involved in the Grants Pass case as a result of our representation of the City of Chico.  AGCs Senior Litigation Associate, Eric Salbert, filed an Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court) brief on behalf of Chico defending the position of city enforcement authority, which ultimately was adopted by the Supreme Court.  Here is the case summary prepared by our office:

The United States Supreme Court has issued its decision in Grants Pass v. Johnson earlier this morning. The Court’s decision overrules the federal Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Martin v. Boise,  and holds that cities are not constitutionally prohibited from enforcing anti-camping ordinances against homeless persons. The Grants Pass decision will have a significant impact on how local governments address the homeless crisis, from both a practical and legal perspective, and will result in cities revisiting their existing policies and practices.

Grants Pass was a class action filed on behalf of homeless persons living in Grants Pass, Oregon, with the case claiming that the city’s ordinance that prohibited homeless persons from camping on public property violated the Eight Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as the Ninth Circuit had held six years earlier in Martin v. Boise. However, instead of following the reasoning of Martin v. Boise, the Supreme Court held that “enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eight Amendment.” The Court reasoned that:


  • The Eight Amendment focuses on the “method or kind of punishment” the government may impose after a criminal conviction and does not address questions of whether a government may criminalize particular behavior, such as camping on public property.
  • The “punishment” imposed by the City for violating the anti-camping ordinance was not cruel and unusual within the meaning of the Eight Amendment, as punishment was limited to fines, temporary prohibitions from camping in public places, and not more than 30 days in jail. 
  • Anti-camping ordinances do not criminalize an individual’s homeless status, as is prohibited by the Constitution, but instead prohibits camping in public places by any person regardless of their status. If a homeless person has no other sleeping accommodations, a variety of other legal doctrines and constitutional protections (such as State law “necessity” defenses) are available to protect their rights and interests.

The Court’s summarized its reasoning as follows:  “Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it. The question this case presents is whether the Eighth Amendment grants federal judges primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses. A handful of federal judges cannot begin to “match” the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding “how best to handle” a pressing social question like 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.”


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