The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [Official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that a homeless person cannot be cited for violating city ordinances against camping or disorderly conduct for sleeping in outdoor public spaces if they do not have access to city shelters.
The case was brought by six homeless and formerly homeless individuals in the City of Boise, Idaho. The plaintiffs argued that the citations violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The court found that “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.”
Through a Boise Police Department special order, the city refrains from enforcing the camping or disorderly conduct ordinances if the shelters report being full. The City of Boise has three homeless shelters. One reported being full roughly 40 percent of nights, while the other two never reported being full. However, the other two homeless shelters will bar a person who has stayed 17 consecutive nights from staying at the shelter for 30 days, unless the person participates in the shelter’s religion-based treatment program.
The court found that “[a] city cannot, via the threat of prosecution, coerce an individual to attend religion-based treatment programs consistently with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” Two of the shelters also generally denied shelter to anyone who arrived after 8:00 PM. Therefore, the court found that even though the shelters did not report being full, it did not mean that a homeless individual had an option to go to the homeless shelter. Enforcement of the ordinances against someone who does have access to an alternative shelter violates the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty released [JURIST report] a report in November 2016, which found that many cities around the US have increased the criminalization of being homeless. The US Department of Justice in August 2015 challenged [JURIST report] the Boise law that criminalized sleeping in public, claiming that the law was a form of cruel and unusual punishment.