Bans on Homeless Camps Upheld: Supreme Court Ruling Grants Cities Authority to Clear Streets

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In a historic ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed sanity by a 6-3 vote, allowing cities to ban homeless encampments in public areas.

The decision is based on the case City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson et al., where the city aimed to uphold regulations prohibiting camping on public property.

Grants Pass, a city with around 38,000 people, has been grappling with homelessness, housing an estimated 600 individuals experiencing homelessness daily.

In response, the city enacted rules prohibiting camping on public property and overnight parking in city parks. Initial breaches could lead to fines, while repeated violations could result in incarceration.

This legal dispute arose after the Ninth Circuit’s 2019 ruling in Martin v. Boise, which stated that cities couldn’t enforce such regulations against homeless individuals if there weren’t enough shelter beds for them.

Following this precedent, an Oregon district court barred Grants Pass from enforcing its camping prohibitions.

Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the court’s decision, stressing the difference between criminalizing a “status” and regulating actions.

The Court concluded that enforcing laws against public camping doesn’t constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment since these laws target specific behaviors rather than homelessness itself.

“The Court cannot say that the punishments Grants Pass imposes here qualify as cruel and unusual. The city imposes only limited fines for first-time offenders, an order temporarily barring an individual from camping in a public park for repeat offenders, and a maximum sentence of 30 days in jail for those who later violate an order. Such punishments do not qualify as cruel because they are not designed to “superad[d]” “terror, pain, or disgrace.” Gorsuch wrote in his majority opinion.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses the Ninth Circuit’s injunction, providing clarity on the application of the Eighth Amendment. The opinion outlines several key points:

  1. Focus on Criminal Punishments: The Eighth Amendment traditionally addresses the nature of punishments following a criminal conviction, not the criminalization of specific behaviors.
  2. Historical Context: The Court reiterated that the Eighth Amendment was designed to prevent barbaric punishments, not to dictate the scope of criminal laws.
  3. Public Camping Laws: Grants Pass’s ordinances were found to regulate actions (camping and parking in public spaces), not the status of homelessness. The Court emphasized that these laws apply to all individuals, regardless of their housing status.

Justice Sotomayor, along with Justices Kagan and Jackson, issued a dissent, raising concerns about the potential humanitarian consequences of the ruling.

Houman David Hemmati, MD, PhD reacted to this ruling, writing, “Today, the US Supreme Court ruled in the Grants Pass case that governments CAN legally cite, arrest, and remove homeless people camping in public areas. This is a game changer for California & SF/LA as it now allows governments to clean up parks & beaches etc. While these actions may now be legal, it’s important to remember that we must always act with dignity and compassion. However, that compassion has boundaries, and destroying public spaces & preventing the public from safely enjoying spaces it owns is NOT compassionate to everyone else.”

Remember that Newsom and other Democrats filed amicus briefs in favor of reversing the decision earlier this year.

“The United States Supreme Court can establish a balance that allows enforcement of reasonable limits on camping in public spaces, while still respecting the dignity of those living on our streets. By setting out a clear rule, the Court can empower state and local governments to enact and enforce compassionate policies that will help save lives, strengthen their communities, and ultimately work to stem the tide of this homelessness crisis.” Governor Gavin Newsom said.

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