Supreme Court will rule on clearing homeless encampments in California and the West

WEST LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 30: A homeless camp outside the West LA Veterans Affairs facilities on Monday, August 30, 2021. The camp is located on San Vicente Boulevard in an unincorporated area near Brentwood in West Los Angeles, CA.  Dozens of veterans live in the encampment, also called Veterans Row, where some tents are decorated with American flags.  Recently, a homeless veteran was stopped to death nearby.  (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Supreme Court will rule on clearing homeless encampments in California and the West

California Politics

David G Savage

January 12, 2024

The Supreme Court agreed on Friday to decide whether homeless people have a residence permit


the right to camp on public land if they have no other place to sleep.

Based on calls from city officials in California and the West, the court will review decisions by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that it was cruel and unusual punishment for cities to deny homeless people a place to sleep.

As a result of the 9th Circuit’s rulings, public officials in California and the eight other Western states under their jurisdiction face increased scrutiny and legal challenges as they clear camps or relocate homeless people.

California Governor Gavin Newsom and city attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Phoenix were among a dozen government and business groups urging the Supreme Court to restore their authority over sidewalks and parks, or at least clarify the law .

City attorneys said so


It is unclear whether encampments can be removed from sidewalks or parks if the people living on the streets refuse an offer to move to temporary shelter.



the 9th Circuit’s decisions in cases from Boise, Idaho and Grants Pass, Oregon. to the worsening homelessness crisis in West Coast states. California alone is “home to half the nation’s unsheltered population,” they said in their appeal in Grants Pass vs. Johnson.

The court said it would hear arguments in the case in April and issue a ruling by the end of June.

In the past, the 8th Amendment’s barrier against imposing “cruel and unusual punishment” has been used by the Supreme Court to limit how the government deals with those convicted of crimes.

Advocates for the homeless point to a 1962 ruling that sets limits on what can be considered a crime.

In Robinson vs. California’s Supreme Court struck down part of a California law that criminalized drug addiction. Lawrence Robinson had been arrested by Los Angeles police officers, who said his arm was discolored from “numerous needle marks.” He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 90 days in jail.

The Supreme Court later overturned his conviction, ruling that it was cruel and unusual to punish someone not for using or selling drugs, but for the “disease” of “narcotics addiction.”

In 2006, that ruling was cited by the 9th Circuit judges to strike down a sidewalk ordinance in Los Angeles that allowed police to arrest people for “lying or sleeping” on the street. The three-judge panel said homeless people were being punished simply because they had no place to sleep.

Rather than appeal to the Supreme Court, the city settled the case and agreed not to enforce the ordinance during overnight hours.

The 9th Circuit issued a broader ruling in 2018 striking down ordinances in Boise, Idaho, that allowed police to arrest or fine people sleeping or camping on public property.

The justices said the Supreme Court’s Robinson ruling established the “principle that the 8th Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of a person’s status or being.”

In Grants Pass, a city of 38,000 in southern Oregon, there were an estimated 50 to 600 homeless people. In response to a lawsuit from homeless advocates, a federal judge and a 9th Circuit panel struck down the anti-camping ordinance because the city did not have “adequate shelter” for all of them.

“We affirm the district court’s ruling that the City of Grants Pass cannot, pursuant to the 8th Amendment, enforce its anti-camping ordinances against homeless people merely for sleeping outdoors with rudimentary protection from the elements, or for sleeping in their cars. at night, when there is no other place in town for them to go,” Judge Rosyln Silver said in a 2-1 decision.

When the court’s conservatives moved to have the full 9th ​​Circuit reconsider that ruling, they fell short by a vote of 14 to 13.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for the city highlighted the practical difficulties of homelessness.

“Across the West,” they said, “hundreds of thousands of people are camping in public, their tents and belongings overtaking sidewalks, parks and trails. Cities want to help those in encampments get the services they need while ensuring our communities remain safe. , but they find themselves paralyzed in responding to public encampments and the drug overdoses, murders, sexual assaults, diseases and fires that inevitably accompany them.

The Supreme Court came closest to ruling on the issue in 1982. A group called the Community for Creative Non-Violence applied for a permit for a demonstration in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.

Their request included a “symbolic tent city” that would sleep about 50 people.

The Park Service approved the permit to demonstrate, but denied the request to sleep in the park. The attorneys sued, claiming the camping ban violated the First Amendment’s free speech protections. They lost in front of a federal judge, won in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and ultimately lost seven


2 at the Supreme Court in 1984.

Judge Byron White wrote for the court that the First Amendment allows reasonable limits on the “time, place and manner” of demonstrations. “We have little difficulty in concluding that the Park Service can prohibit overnight stays in the affected parks,” he wrote.


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