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Supreme Court to Review Homeless Camping Laws: A Critical Update of Johnson v. Grants Pass and Its Nationwide Implications

by | Jan 30, 2024 | Case Highlights, Community

Supreme Court Steps In: A New Chapter in Homeless Camping Jurisprudence

In a significant development, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to review the rulings related to homeless camping, particularly the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Johnson v. Grants Pass. This case builds upon the foundations laid by Martin v. City of Boise, challenging the ways cities enforce ordinances against public camping.

The amended ruling by the 9th Circuit in July 2023, now the governing law, extends the prohibition of criminal enforcement of public camping ordinances to include administrative actions. It also broadens the definition of “sleeping” to encompass basic sleeping accessories and the act of sleeping in a vehicle overnight.

Background and Context

The issue of homeless encampments has been a growing concern in the United States. Following the pivotal Martin v. City of Boise decision, which restricted criminal enforcement of public camping ordinances without alternative shelter, cities have been navigating a complex legal landscape. The Johnson ruling further complicates matters by expanding the scope of what constitutes a violation, making the enforcement of local ordinances even more challenging for cities.

Johnson v. City of Grants Pass: A Detailed Look

In this landmark case, three homeless individuals filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Grants Pass. The lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the city’s enforcement of their public camping ordinance through civil fines and the prohibition of certain sleeping accessories.

The trial court, aligning with the plaintiffs, deemed parts of the city’s ordinances unconstitutional under the Martin precedent. The 9th Circuit upheld this, broadening Martin’s scope to include administrative enforcement and redefining “sleeping” in the context of public camping.

Key Takeaways

    • Administrative Enforcement: This ruling indicates that administrative enforcement, which could lead to criminal consequences, violates the 8th Amendment.
    • Definition of ‘Sleeping’: The term now includes basic protection against the elements and overnight sleeping in vehicles.
    • Impact on Local Agencies: There’s a potential increase in class action suits against laws disproportionately impacting homeless individuals.

Considerations for Local Agencies

This evolving legal environment underscores the need for local agencies to reassess their ordinances and enforcement strategies. Civica Law, with its specialization in municipal law, is at the forefront of advising and assisting public agencies in these challenging times.

    • Updating Ordinances: It’s crucial for cities to revise their ordinances to align with these legal developments.
    • Health and Safety Measures: The ruling does not impede a local agency’s ability to enforce health and safety regulations.
    • Future Developments: The scope of “rudimentary protection against the elements” is still under review, and further legal challenges are likely.

Your Partner in Navigating Municipal Law Challenges

At Civica Law, we are committed to providing cities, counties, and special districts with expert legal guidance in this rapidly changing area of law. Our team is dedicated to helping public agencies adapt to these new legal realities, ensuring compliance and minimizing liability risks.

    About the Author

    • Civica Law

      With over 75 collective years of experience, Civica Law has helped cities and counties abate thousands of dangerous and substandard properties, improve housing conditions, and effectively deal with a wide range of quality-of-life issues, from homeless encampments to cannabis, drug, and gang dens to illegal gambling (or tap-tap) facilities, illegal business operations, human trafficking and massage, land use, and zoning, and virtually every other conceivable quality of life and safety issue a public agency may face.