Supreme Court declines to hear Boise case on homelessness

Today the Supreme Court declined to accept an appeal of a case issued by the 9th Circuit. That leaves a ruling in place which found it was unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment for states to issue fines against homeless people for sleeping on the streets except in cases where the municipality in question has enough beds to offer one to every homeless person.

The case stems from a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago. A handful of people sued the city of Boise for repeatedly ticketing them for violating an ordinance against sleeping outside. While Boise officials later amended it to prohibit citations when shelters are full, the 9th Circuit eventually determined the local law was unconstitutional.

In a decision last year, the court said it was “cruel and unusual punishment” to enforce rules that stop homeless people from camping in public places when they have no place else to go. That means states across the 9th Circuit can no longer enforce similar statutes if they don’t have enough shelter beds for homeless people sleeping outside.

The Boise decision has put limits on what cities and counties can do in response to homeless people camping on sidewalks or in other public places. Because of the large upswing in homelessness along the west coast, from San Diego to Seattle, no municipality has enough shelter beds to accommodate everyone who needs a bed. In effect, police cannot arrest or ticket the homeless for sleeping outside.

In September, Los Angeles County joined other counties including San Diego, Orange, Riverside, and Sacramento who were seeking to appeal the 9th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court. The goal, according to LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, was to have the high court offer a clear framework for municipalities dealing with the homeless.

Local officials had joined Boise in asking the high court to hear the case, but that was “never an attempt to criminalize the homeless; rather, it was a pursuit of a legal framework that is clear — in comparison to a status quo that is ambiguous and confusing,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a statement.

“Letting the current law stand handicaps cities and counties from acting nimbly to aid those perishing on the streets, exacerbating unsafe and unhealthy conditions that negatively affect our most vulnerable residents,” he said…

The “creation of a de facto constitutional right to live on sidewalks and in parks will cripple the ability of more than 1,600 municipalities in the 9th Circuit to maintain the health and safety of their communities,” wrote lawyers for Boise.

“Nothing in the Constitution … requires cities to surrender their streets, sidewalks, parks, riverbeds and other public areas to vast encampments,” the lawyers said. The appeal was filed by Theane Evangelis and Ted Olson, partners at Gibson Dunn in Los Angeles.

Evangelis told NPR, “Cities’ hands are tied now by the 9th Circuit Decision because it effectively creates a Constitutional right to camp.” Here’s a local news report on the decision from KTVB in Boise: