[JURIST] Last week the US Department of Justice [official website] challenged [complaint, PDF] the constitutionality of a Boise, Idaho city ordinance that criminalizes sleeping in public places by the homeless. The federal government’s argument [Washington Post report] relies on the fact that everyone needs to sleep and by criminalizing the act of sleeping the law criminalizes homelessness itself. For the estimated half million homeless people across the nation, the government suggests that a law prohibiting them from sleeping is an form of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eight Amendment of the US constitution. The federal government is applauded by legal professionals committed to improve the current situation of widespread homelessness and poverty. The action will encourage cities to address homelessness through means other than the criminal justice system.
Criminalizing the actions of specified groups of people raises constitutional issues. In March the California Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that a law restricting where sex-offenders could live was unconstitutional. A number of changes in the sex-offender registry system have taken place across the country, as sex offender laws have been increasingly criticized [JURIST report] over the past decade for limiting residence options and promoting ostracization. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] 5-1 in January that the requirement that all sex offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes must remain on the Megan’s Law Registry for life is unconstitutional. In September a divided New Jersey Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that requiring a sex offender to wear a GPS tracking device after he has completed his sentence violates the federal and state constitutions.