Supreme Court Overrules Martin v. Boise in Important Homeless Encampment Case

Supreme Court Overrules Martin v. Boise in Important Homeless Encampment Case

Today in Grants Pass v. Johnson, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause does not prohibit the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property.  The Court explained the “Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest … [the] rights and responsibilities from the American people” to decide “how best to handle a pressing social question like homelessness” and “in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.”  The decision highlighted the complexities of the homeless crisis and noted that five years ago, the Ninth Circuit “took one of [the] tools [needed to address homelessness] off the table” in Martin v. Boise, 920 F. 3d 584 (2019).

This case centers on ordinances passed in Grants Pass, a city in Oregon with a population of 38,000 people, of whom approximately 600 are individuals experiencing homelessness.  To understand the case, we need to travel back to 2019 when the Ninth Circuit decided Martin v. Boise.  Martin involved an ordinance in Boise that made it a misdemeanor to use “streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places” for “camping.”  The Ninth Circuit held that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.”  Boise (and all other local governments in the Ninth Circuit), therefore could not enforce public-camping ordinances against homeless individuals who lacked “access to alternative shelter.”

Back to Grants Pass.  The city passed several ordinances after the Martin decision related to the regulation of sleeping outside, which taken together made it nearly impossible to sleep outside with any form of bedding or shelter on public land in the city.  See GPMC 5.61.020; GPMC 5.61.030; GPMC 6.46.090.  A violation of these ordinances resulted in fines, which would escalate if left unpaid.  The “park exclusion” ordinance allowed police officers to bar someone from a city park for 30 days if they received 2 more citations for violating park ordinances within one year. GPMC 6.46.350(A).  If someone had received a park exclusion ordinance and was later found in a park, that could result in criminal trespass.  The city amended its camping ordinance after Martin to make it clear that the involuntary act of sleeping in a park was not prohibited, rather what was prohibited was “camping” – i.e., sleeping with any bedding / shelter.

Two homeless individuals in Grants Pass filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of those that are “involuntarily homeless” against the city, arguing its ordinances are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.  The Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s class certification of all “involuntarily homeless” in Grants Pass.  The Ninth Circuit also affirmed the district court’s holding that “the anti-camping ordinances violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to the extent they prohibited homeless individuals from ‘taking necessary minimal measures to keep themselves warm and dry while sleeping when there are no alternative forms of shelter available.’”  Although the city had four temporary shelters, none were “adequate” for the city’s homeless population.

In a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s “Martin experiment.”  In doing so, the Court explained that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause addresses “the method or kind of punishment a government may impose for the violation of criminal statutes.”  (internal quotations omitted).  Noting that the Court has previously discussed the history of the clause, the majority simply explained that the clause was adopted to ensure the new Nation would not resort to certain types of “barbaric punishments” which had been tolerated in English law.  The question of what type of behavior may be criminalized is not addressed by the Eighth Amendment.  The Court noted instead that other provisions of the Constitution may speak to those matters. And in terms of the “method and kind[s]” of punishments at issue in this case, which included fines and up to 30 days in jail, do not qualify as cruel or unusual.

The plaintiffs argued that Robinson v. California, 370 U. S. 660 (1962) should apply because the city, in their view, is criminalizing the status of being homeless.  In Robinson, the Court held that a California law that criminalized the status of narcotics addiction constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.  The Court in Robinson noted that if the government punishes “status,” “[e]ven one day in prison would be . . . cruel and unusual.”

Here, the Court declined to extend Robinson beyond true “status” crimes.  Public camping laws like the one in Grants Pass do not criminalize status, but instead make certain actions a crime, and the crime applies to any defendant, as the Court puts it, whether the person is homeless or a backpacker on vacation.  The majority rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that Robinson should apply to laws banning public camping as applied to the homeless because they apply to an “involuntary” action and the homeless person “cannot help but do what the law forbids.”  The Court explained that its decision in Powell v. Texas already rejected this argument and the Court refused to “extend Robinson beyond its narrow holding.” The Court reiterated that other constitutional provisions may apply and individuals may have certain defenses (like necessity).

The Court not only rejected the plaintiffs’ legal arguments, but also underscored the important federalism and separation of powers issues inherent in these decisions noting “federal courts [are] removed from realities on the ground, [and the] rules have produced confusion.”  The Court further noted that the Ninth Circuit’s decisions have interfered with “‘essential considerations of federalism,’ taking from the people and their elected leaders difficult questions traditionally ‘thought to be the[ir] province.’”

The majority also highlighted the unworkability of the Martin decision explaining:

…Martin exemplifies much of what can go wrong when courts try to resolve matters like those unmoored from any secure guidance in the Constitution. Start with this problem. Under Martin, cities must allow public camping by those who are “involuntarily” homeless. But how are city officials and law enforcement officers to know what it means to be “involuntarily” homeless, or whether any particular person meets that standard? Posing the questions may be easy; answering them is not. Is it enough that a homeless person has turned down an offer of shelter? Or does it matter why? Cities routinely confront individuals who decline offers of shelter for any number of reasons, ranging from safety concerns to individual preferences.  How are cities and their law enforcement officers on the ground to know which of these reasons are sufficiently weighty to qualify a person as “involuntarily” homeless? If there are answers to those questions, they cannot be found in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause. Nor do federal judges enjoy any special competence to provide them.

Additionally, the Court called the Ninth Circuit’s shelter availability test “all but impossible to administer in practice.”  Citing several amicus briefs as evidence of the complexities of the problem, including the fact that it can take thousands of volunteers multiple days to count the homeless population in large cities.  The Court also emphasized the line drawing problems the decisions present in terms of a lack of a definition for “adequate” and “available” shelter as well as the uncertainty as to what other biological necessities might be covered under Martin. 

Justice Sotomayor authored the dissent, joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson.  The dissent argued that because sleep is a biological necessity, for people who sleeping outside is their only option, it cannot be a crime.  The dissent viewed the ordinances at issue as criminalizing status under Robinson and would find they violate the Eighth Amendment.

The majority noted that “an exceptionally large number of cities and States have filed [amicus briefs] in the case,” and cited to many of those briefs, including citing and quoting the one filed by the Local Government Legal Center (IMLA, NACo, & NLC), which was drafted by Brandon Rain with the City of Seattle, multiple times.  The Court used the amicus briefs to highlight everything from the scope of the homelessness problem, to how Martin is being interpreted in lower courts to hamstring local governments, to some of the solutions that local governments are seeking to address homelessness.  One of the points the LGLC made in its amicus brief which was cited by the Court is that “these public-camping regulations are not usually deployed as a front-line response to criminalize homelessness. Instead, they are used to provide [local government] employees with the legal authority to address encampments that pose significant health and safety risks and to encourage their inhabitants to accept other alternatives like shelters, drug treatment programs, and mental-health facilities.”

The Court and many amici agree that the problem of homelessness is complex.  This case returns the hard task of solving the homeless crisis to state and local policymakers, where it belongs.  Rather than spending significant time, money, and resources litigating Martin claims, local governments can focus on expending resources to help the homeless community while ensuring their public spaces are safe and clean in a manner consistent with local needs.

To read the decision, click here.

To read the LGLC amicus brief, click here.