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What to know about the 9th District Court's homeless camping decision

A 9th district ruling has some local agencies reviewing and preparing for potential impacts to their ordinances.

A 9th district ruling has local agencies reviewing and preparing for potential impacts to their ordinances.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit determined in Martin vs. Boise that as long as there is no option for people to sleep indoors, the government cannot criminalize homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property.

“The outcome of Court’s decision will ripple across the country. Cities will have to address real solutions to the complex issues faced by homeless individuals and families rather than just create more barriers and fill more jails with persons who only needed a place to sleep for the night,” said Howard Belodoff, of Idaho Legal Aid Services, Inc. in a statement.

Cities like Modesto and Turlock in Stanislaus County are currently dealing with their own homelessness issues. Stanislaus County as a whole had 1,356 homeless people and 606 of those people were unsheltered.

Regarding the 9th District ruling, City of Modesto spokesperson Thomas Reeves said that ruling has the City reviewing their policies and procedures on unlawful camping and whether those would need to change. He added that he does not expect this to be a quick process.

“The city is reviewing the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling carefully for how it impacts Modesto’s current policies and risk exposure,” Reeves said in a statement. “We will not cite someone for being homeless, and we will continue to ensure our first priority is offering services for those who need them."

1. This started with ordinance violations in Boise, Idaho

Martin vs. Boise dates back to 2009 when six individuals identifying as homeless or formerly homeless filed a lawsuit against the City of Boise. They alleged that the City’s citations for camping ordinance violations were violating their 8th amendment rights, regarding cruel and unusual punishment.

At the time, Boise’s City Code made it a misdemeanor to use streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a “camping place.” Their other ordinance in the case banned occupying, lodging, or sleeping in any building, structure, or public place, whether public or private, without permission.

Boise would eventually amend their ordinance in 2014 by prohibiting enforcement against homeless people on public property on any night when shelters did not have space.

2. The 8th amendment concern

One of the questions that judges had to analyze was whether the 8th amendment can prevent a city from prosecuting people for sleeping outside on public property when those people have nowhere else to go.

There was a similar case heard in 2006, regarding Jones vs. the City of Los Angeles. In the Jones decision, the court faced a similar ordinance regarding people involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public. They concluded that as long as the number of homeless people in LA was greater than the number of homeless shelter beds, then LA could not enforce the ordinance.

Even though the Jones decision was vacated due to a settlement, this court would conclude in Martin vs. Boise that the 8th amendment prohibits the criminal penalties for “sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.”

3. The Court’s holding is a narrow one

They determined that the ordinances regarding camping and sleeping in public places criminalized sleeping outside on public property and occupying or sleeping in any public or private place without permission.

With the camping ordinance frequently enforced against homeless people, it was also determined that it can be enforced against homeless people taking “even rudimentary precautions to protect themselves from the elements.”

“As a result, just as the state may not criminalize the state of being 'homeless in public places,' the state may not 'criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets,'" noted Circuit Court Judge Marsha Berzon in the court's Opinion.

The court is not requiring Boise to provide sufficient shelter for the homeless or allow people who want to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets do so at any time or place. They held that as long as there is no option for sleeping indoors, then the government cannot criminalize homeless people for “sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”