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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Homeless Can Fight Boise Rule They Say Is Biased

(CN) - The 9th Circuit gave new hope Thursday to a group of homeless residents challenging laws in Boise, Idaho, against camping and sleeping in public spaces.

Robert Anderson, Janet Bell, Brian Carson, Pamela Hawkes, Basil Humphrey, Robert Martin and Lawrence Lee Smith, all current or former homeless residents of Boise, had claimed in a 2009 federal lawsuit that the city's ban on camping and sleeping in public spaces essentially made homelessness a crime.

Some residents have little choice but to sleep outside, the group had argued, as the city has just three shelters, which are often booked up and subject to restrictions about how long one can stay.

After the Boise Police Department adopted a "special order" prohibiting its officers from enforcing the ordinances when the city's shelters are full, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush found the plaintiffs' prospective claims moot and granted the defendants summary judgment.

Bush also dismissed the group's claims for retrospective relief for violations of the Eighth Amendment, determining that they were barred by the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The rule - which derives from two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Rooker v. Fidelity Trust Co. and District of Columbia Court of Appeals v. Feldman - precludes relitigation in federal court of state court cases.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel in Seattle reversed dismissal of the group's Eighth Amendment claims. It found that an informal promise by Boise's police department to limit enforcement of the statutes did not make the issue moot.

The police department's internal adoption of a "special order" based on voluntary agreements is not enough to ward off the challenge, the 22-page ruling states.

"On the record before us, we conclude the implementation of the special order is insufficient to moot plaintiffs' Eighth Amendment claims for prospective relief," Judge Susan Black wrote for the panel.

"Defendants have failed to meet their heavy burden to make it 'absolutely clear that the allegedly wrongful behavior' - the alleged unconstitutional enforcement of the ordinances-'could not reasonably be expected to recur,'" she added.

The panel also determined that the Rooker-Feldman doctrine did not apply to the case.

While it's true that each of the plaintiffs had been convicted for violations of the challenged ordinances in state court, that doesn't automatically prevent them from going to the federal court with retrospective claims for damages, the panel found.

"Although plaintiffs sought relief designed to remedy injuries suffered from a state court judgment, they did not allege before the court that the state court committed legal error, nor did they seek relief from the state court judgment itself," Black wrote. "Without a direct challenge to a state court's factual or legal conclusion, plaintiffs' suit is not a forbidden de facto appeal."

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