Supreme Court Upholds Ruling, Homeless People Cannot Be Criminally Punished for Sleeping Outside if No Alternatives Exist

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a petition to review Martin v. Boise on December 16, upholding the Ninth Circuit Court ruling that people experiencing homelessness cannot be criminally punished for sleeping outside on public property if there are no available alternatives. The Supreme Court’s decision makes the Ninth Circuit Court ruling binding for states in the Court’s jurisdiction: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. It also sets an influential national precedent.

The lawsuit, led by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), Idaho Legal Aid Services, and Latham & Watkins LLP, challenged enforcement of Boise’s Camping and Disorderly Conduct Ordinances, which allow people experiencing homelessness to be ticketed or otherwise criminally punished for sleeping in public spaces. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled that, in the absence of adequate alternatives, criminalizing people experiencing homelessness for sleeping in public constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore violates their Eighth Amendment rights.

Some city officials in California and other Western states expressed disapproval of the Supreme Court’s decision, stating the Boise ruling makes it more difficult to provide services to those in need and poses a public health and safety hazard. NLIHC and other advocates for the homeless, however, lauded the Supreme Court’s decision noting that criminalizing people experiencing homelessness does not address the underlying causes of homelessness, does nothing to solve the homelessness crisis, and violates the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness.

In a statement on the decision, NLIHC president and CEO Diane Yentel said, “cities must stop attempting to criminalize and hide their communities’ homeless people and instead work toward providing real solutions, starting with the only thing that truly ends homelessness: access to safe, affordable, accessible homes.”

The Supreme Court’s decision may complicate anticipated efforts by the Trump administration to incentivize the use of local law enforcement in response to homelessness. Robert Marbut, the recently confirmed executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), has in the past endorsed expanding law enforcement’s authority to arrest people experiencing homelessness for violating minor local ordinances (see Memo, 12/9).

While the Boise ruling is critical to ensuring the rights of people experiencing homelessness are preserved, it remains imperative to continue pushing for solutions to homelessness, including increasing the supply of deeply affordable housing.

More about Martin v. Boise is at:

Statement from Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO:

More about the criminalization of homelessness is at:

NLCHP’s recent report on efforts to criminalize homelessness is at: