Unconstitutional Ban on Homeless Camping Won’t Face High Court

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court declined Monday to consider a pair of city ordinances from Boise, Idaho, that aimed to curb homelessness by criminalizing the act of sleeping in public places.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Boise treated violations of its ordinances as a misdemeanor and implemented a policy by which the ordinance would not be enforced on nights when shelters were full.

Though a federal judge initially rejected a challenge brought over a decade ago by six current or former homeless residents, the Ninth Circuit called it unconstitutional to enforce the laws against people who have nowhere else to go.

Boise in turn petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, arguing that the ordinances were necessary to ensure safety and health in the city’s public places. The Ninth Circuit had ruled the laws cruel and unusual, but Boise called this ruling an anomaly that went well beyond Eighth Amendment precedents. Without a reversal, it warned, cities would be powerless to secure their public spaces.

“The constitutional rule adopted by the Ninth Circuit is both nonsensical in theory and unworkable in practice,” the city’s petition with the Supreme Court states. “As a result, in the wake of the decision below, many municipalities have abandoned efforts to contain the threats to public health and safety posed by encampments rather than face litigation and potential civil liability.”

As is its typical practice, the Supreme Court did not explain its reasons for turning down the case Monday.

Theane Evangelis, a lawyer for Boise at the Los Angeles firm Gibson Dunn, said the city is looking at its options as the dispute over the ordinances returns to U.S. District Court.

“States and counties across the Ninth Circuit continue to work hard to address the complex problem of homelessness, and, as an overwhelming number of amicus briefs supporting the court’s review also argued, the Ninth Circuit’s decision ultimately harms the very people it purports to protect,” Evangelis said in a statement.

Latham & Watkins attorney Michael Bern represented the people challenging the law. 

“We’re thrilled that the court has let the 9th Circuit decision stand so that homeless people are not punished for sleeping on the streets when they have no other option,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said in a statement.

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