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Supreme Court Declines to Hear Boise Defend Policy of Prosecuting the Homeless

Homeless person sitting on the sidewalk
By Laura Temme, Esq. on December 23, 2019 7:29 AM

The Supreme Court declined to take up review of the Ninth Circuit's ruling in Martin v. City of Boise this week, leaving in place a ruling that fining or jailing a homeless person for staying outside is unconstitutional.

The case stemmed from two city ordinances in Boise: One that prohibited "camping" in parks, streets, and other public property; and another that banned "lodging or sleeping" in any place (public or private) without the owner's permission. The city claimed it needed to enforce these ordinances to prevent encampments from becoming public health risks.

No Choice in the Matter

The plaintiffs, all either formerly or currently homeless, filed suit against the city in 2009 after being fined or held in jail based on the ordinances that banned sleeping in public. Relying on an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling, Judge Marsha Berzon's opinion for the panel held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition.

"As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors," Judge Berzon wrote, "the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter." Following this logic, the panel ruled that enforcement of the ordinances constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

SCOTUS Declines

More than 20 amicus briefs accompanied Boise's petition to the Supreme Court, many from city and county governments - possibly setting a record. Boise argued that overruling these ordinances would undercut the city's ability to maintain health and safety. In its petition, the city claimed the "catastrophic" decision amounted to "the creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks."

But, it seems SCOTUS saw no reason to disturb the Ninth Circuit's decision at this time.

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