Washington, DC (Aug. 6, 2015) – The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a landmark statement of interest today in Idaho federal court arguing that when there is insufficient shelter space in a city, making it a crime for the homeless to sleep in public spaces is unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment. The case, Bell v. City of Boise, et al., was brought by homeless individuals who were convicted under Boise city ordinances criminalizing sleeping or camping in public.
In its statement of interest, the Department of Justice points out that "[o]n any given night in the United States, half a million people are likely to be experiencing homelessness" and that "[i]n 2014, 42% of homeless individuals slept in unsheltered, public locations—under bridges, in cars, in parks, on the sidewalk, or in abandoned buildings." The Justice Department was clear, "[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment.... Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place…. If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution."
"Homelessness should not be a crime, and those without shelter should never be punished as criminals. It is an unmitigated tragedy that the scourge of overcriminalization in America has reached a point where we have jurisdictions, such as the city of Boise, Idaho, that are prosecuting the circumstance of homelessness as a crime," said National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) President E.G. "Gerry" Morris. "In another sign that the nation and its leaders have grown weary with the failed, decades-long experiment criminalizing all manner of human conduct, it is groundbreaking that the Department of Justice today filed an elegant statement of interest essentially making the case that criminalizing homeless people who have nowhere to seek shelter constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Of course, as a society, our better instincts should have never allowed us to reach this point where we are punishing people for the very circumstance that calls out for us to be helping them."
As set forth in the DOJ's press release:
In its filing, the United States does not take a position on the factual accuracy of the plaintiffs' claims, but instead addresses the appropriate legal framework for analyzing their claims. The statement of interest advocates for the application of the analysis set forth in Jones v. City of Los Angeles, a Ninth Circuit decision that was subsequently vacated pursuant to a settlement. In Jones, the court considered whether the city of Los Angeles provided sufficient shelter space to accommodate the homeless population. The court found that, on nights when individuals are unable to secure shelter space, enforcement of anti-camping ordinances violated their constitutional rights. The parties in Bell v. City of Boise disagree about whether the Jones court's analysis was correct, reflecting the longstanding disagreement among courts analyzing the constitutionality of anti-camping ordinances. The statement of interest was filed to address this currently unsettled area of the law.
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