Executive Summary of Supreme Court Opinion on Clearing Homeless Encampments

Cities no longer must have shelter space to clear encampments that violate local ordinances.

City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson et al. Decision Date: June 28, 2024 Case Number: No. 23–175 (click link to view the full opinion)

The Supreme Court’s opinion in the case of City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson addresses the issue of public camping laws and their enforcement against homeless individuals. The Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause does not prevent cities from enforcing public camping laws, even if the number of homeless individuals exceeds the available shelter beds.

The case began when homeless individuals in Grants Pass, Oregon, challenged the city’s public camping laws, arguing they violated the Eighth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit had previously ruled in Martin v. Boise that cities could not enforce such laws if there were more homeless people than available shelter beds. Grants Pass, supported by various states and cities, asked the Supreme Court to review this decision.

The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, emphasizing that the Eighth Amendment focuses on the punishment that follows a criminal conviction, not on what behavior a state can criminalize. The Court stated that previous decisions, like Robinson v. California, which addressed laws criminalizing a person’s status, did not apply here because the ordinances target actions (public camping) rather than a status (being homeless).

The Court acknowledged the complexity of homelessness and the varied efforts by local governments to address it. However, it stressed that constitutional limits on criminalizing certain behaviors are already extensive, including protections under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses.

Implications for Police Departments:

The Supreme Court’s decision provides clarity and support for law enforcement agencies across the country in managing public spaces. Police departments now have a definitive ruling that allows them to enforce public camping laws without fearing that these actions violate the Eighth Amendment. This decision empowers local governments to balance the needs of public safety, community welfare, and the rights of homeless individuals. It emphasizes the importance of local solutions and the role of democratic processes in addressing homelessness.

This ruling supports the principle of local control and the importance of upholding the rule of law. It acknowledges the need for communities to maintain order and safety in public spaces while continuing to seek compassionate solutions for those experiencing homelessness. The decision reinforces the ability of local governments to implement and enforce policies that reflect the values and needs of their residents.

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