Federal judge rules cities cannot issue fines for being homeless

Photo by Joseph Novak on flickr.com/photos/josephleenovak/3768500081

A federal judge recently ruled that the City of Grants Pass, Oregon, cannot issue citations and civil fines to homeless people sleeping in public. Following up on an earlier case that outlawed criminal penalties for sleeping in parks and on sidewalks, the ruling will force local governments to rethink how they address the challenge of homelessness in their communities.

The Oregon Law Center originally filed the suit in 2019 on behalf of Debra Blake and two other plaintiffs. It grew into a class action suit to include all homeless people in Grants Pass. Blake, 61, was from Grants Pass and had been homeless for almost 10 years after becoming disabled and losing her job. Grants Pass has no year-round emergency shelters, despite hundreds of homeless people living there.

According to StreetRoots, an award-winning Portland street newspaper supporting homeless issues, Grants Pass has long taken measures to push homeless people out of town. At a 2013 City Council Roundtable on Vagrancy, then-city councilor Lily Morgan stated, “The point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” Plaintiffs in the case against Grants Pass noted that police offered bus tickets out of town and frequently harassed them no matter where they were sitting or trying to lie down.

The city fined Debra Blake for illegal camping and prohibited activity because she slept in a sleeping bag in a park. Grants Pass does not explicitly outlaw sleeping in public, but it does outlaw “camping,” which includes using a sleeping bag to keep warm or even lying on a piece of cardboard to keep dry. She was cited later the same day for criminal trespass on city property. Blake’s fines totaled $885 and she was excluded from city parks with no due process. With no way to pay the fines, she now owes $5,000 in stacked up penalties.

The lawsuit expanded on the landmark Boise v. Martin ruling. That case ruled that it is unconstitutional to punish people for sleeping outdoors when there is nowhere else for them to go. The Boise ruling clearly said that criminal prosecution for homelessness is unconstitutional. The lawsuit against Grants Pass claimed that fines under its anti-camping ordinance also violated the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Debra Blake’s case is all too common. When homeless people miss deadlines for paying their fines, late fees and penalties make it even more impossible to catch up. At some point, this will result in a court summons, but most homeless people do not have a fixed address to receive notices. If a homeless person does not make it to court, then a bench warrant will be issued. This means that the next time that person has an encounter with law enforcement, they could be arrested. In addition, unpaid civil fines can also harm a person’s credit history and make it harder to find an apartment or get a job.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark D. Clarke ruled against Grants Pass, saying that fining people who have no choice but to sleep outdoors is unconstitutional. The ruling says that, just like criminal charges in Boise v. Martin, the Grants Pass fines are cruel and unusual punishment. They make it impossible for people to engage in the basic need to sleep, they put financial burdens on people least able to pay, and the process can ultimately lead to jail time. And these punishments are directed only at a select group of people, those without shelter. Judge Clarke wrote,“Let us not forget that homeless individuals are citizens just as much as those fortunate enough to have a secure living space.” 

Judge Clarke also challenged the city’s claim that its anti-camping ordinance does not outlaw sleeping in public. “Grants Pass ignores the basic life sustaining need to keep warm and dry while sleeping in order to survive the elements,” Clarke wrote. “Grants Pass cannot credibly argue that its ordinances allow sleeping in public without punishment when, in reality, the only way for homeless people to legally sleep on public property within the City is if they lay on the ground with only the clothing on their backs and without their items near them. That cannot be what Martin had in mind.”

Judge Clarke also addressed the city’s strategy of making life uncomfortable for homeless residents so that they will leave town. Clarke noted, “Uprooting homeless individuals, without providing them with basic sanitation and waste disposal needs, does nothing more than shift a public health crisis from one location to another, potentially endangering the health of the public in both locations. This concern is particularly acute during the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

This ruling will pose challenges for many western cities. After the Boise case outlawed criminal penalties for sleeping in public, many cities just stopped enforcing their camping ordinances for fear of lawsuits. Many others thought they could keep their anti-camping and anti-loitering laws by changing the penalties from criminal misdemeanors to civil fines. The idea is that homeless people will still feel uncomfortable enough that they will move on to another place.

This seems like a minor victory for homeless people, but it is an important one. This case outlaws many “quality of life” practices that cities use to push homeless people out of town. Now, even if penalties are only civil fines instead of criminal charges, they still violate the 8th amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. 

Although this ruling only applies to cities within Oregon for now, it puts cities around the country on notice. Now that cities can no longer jail or fine people for sleeping in public (or put them on a bus out of town), they will need to find other ways to address the growing problem of homelessness. This means that every city needs to have adequate year-round and seasonal emergency shelters. In the long run, it means that cities also need to overcome NIMBY opposition and start building enough affordable housing to meet the needs of all their residents.

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