Supreme Court To Decide Homeless Camping Ban Case

On Friday, January 12, 2024, the United States Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the City of Grants Pass, Oregon may enforce its regulation of homeless encampments by issuing civil citations to people sleeping on public property.

The question presented in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Gloria Johnson is: “Does the enforcement of generally applicable laws regulating camping on public property constitute ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?” In 2018, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Martin v. City of Boise, announcing a rule that “enforcement of commonplace restrictions on public camping constitutes ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ within the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.” Six weeks after Martin was decided, three people brought Martin claims against the City of Grants Pass, a city of 38,000 people in southern Oregon.

Grants Pass previously adopted three ordinances related to public sleeping and camping. The ordinances prohibit: (1) sleeping “on public sidewalks, streets, or alleyways at any time as a matter of individual and public safety;” (2) “‘[c]amping’ on ‘any sidewalk, street, alley, lane, public right of way, park, bench, or any other publicly-owned property or under any bridge or viaduct;'” and (3) camping in the City’s parks. These ordinances are enforced through civil citations, and the city does not use criminal fines or jail terms to enforce said ordinances. If a person has been cited twice for violating park regulations, an exclusion order may be issued to bar said person from a City park for 30 days.

Three individuals who are involuntarily homeless sought to challenge these ordinances by claiming that the ordinances violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment. The district court ruled for the individuals, finding that enforcement of the ordinances constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The district court “understood Martin to establish a ‘mathematical ratio’ that prevents the City from enforcing its ordinances unless a shelter bed within the City’s borders is available for every homeless person.” The court further extended Martin by holding that “Martin protects not only sleeping on public property, but also camping with ‘bedding'” and “that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause prohibits even civil enforcement of the City’s ordinances.”

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s rulings in large part. The majority opinion agreed with “the district court’s determination that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause invalidates Grants Pass’s public-camping ordinances.” The majority “also approved the district court’s extension of Martin to civil citations and to camping with bedding.” The case was remanded with instructions to determine a separate issue related to enforcement of the public-camping ordinances against the use of stoves and fires. The City requested an en banc rehearing of the case, which was rejected in a 14-13 vote.

The petition for a writ of certiorari states that “[t]he Ninth Circuit alone recognizes a ‘constitutional ‘right’ to encamp on public property. . .’ The California Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit, and Fifth Circuit have rejected similar challenges under the Eighth Amendment.” The case seeks to “restore uniformity to the interpretation of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.”

Additional Reading

Does banning camping by homeless people violate Eighth Amendment? Supreme Court agrees to decide, ABA Journal (January 16, 2024)

Justices take up camping ban case, SCOTUSblog (January 12, 2024)

Supreme Court docket in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson (Case Nos. 20-35752, 20-35881)

Petition for a Writ of Certiorari

Order and Amended Opinion in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass (No. 20-35752 (9th Cir. 2023))

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