Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from a Ninth Circuit ruling that prohibited local governments from imposing criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors on public property when no alternative shelter is available to them.

The Supreme Court’s decision to let the Ninth Circuit ruling stand came without comment or noted dissent from the justices and is the latest development in a case that has been ongoing for nearly a decade. The case, Martin v. Boise, originates from a constitutional challenge to ordinances enacted by the City of Boise which make it a crime for individuals to sit, sleep, or lay on public sidewalks. In its defense of the ordinances, the City of Boise contended that the ordinances were essential in curbing crime, violence, disease, and other environmental hazards which stem from individuals living on the streets and the public at large.
The Ninth Circuit rejected the City of Boise’s argument and held that the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishments “prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.” In its reasoning, the Court noted that the state may not criminalize involuntary conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of homelessness, and as such local governments may not prosecute homeless people for sleeping outdoors on the “false premise” they had a choice in the matter to begin with. Further, the Court stated that its holding is a narrow one, and that the decision only applies in circumstances in which the number of homeless individuals within City limits is greater than the number of available beds in shelters.
Although the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is not binding in Illinois, the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case has widespread implications on the homeless epidemic from Alaska to Arizona that local governments should be careful not to “punish” homeless people for sleeping in public when there are no available shelter alternatives.
Post Authored by Rain Montero & Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink