Supreme Court says cities may enforce public camping ordinances

Jun 28, 2024

Cal Cities CEO Carolyn Coleman welcomed the ruling but said it is one of many needed tools to address homelessness 

By Sheri Chapman, general counsel, and Brian Hendershot, Cal Cities Advocate managing editor

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in favor of cities, issuing a major decision on regulating sleeping and camping on public property. The ruling allows city officials to enforce public camping ordinances without first demonstrating that adequate shelter was offered to a person and that person declined.

The League of California Cities earlier this year filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s decisions and provide greater clarity over such ordinances. The ruling is the third major legal win for Cal Cities this year.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling provides much-needed legal clarity by putting back on the table a tool cities can use to address the complex issue of homelessness,” said Cal Cities Executive Director and CEO Carolyn Coleman. “However, this tool alone is not the only one cities need in their toolkit.

“To keep Californians in their homes and ensure our most vulnerable residents can get connected to shelter, permanent housing, and vital services, cities also need ongoing state funding to match the scale of the crisis,” Coleman said.

Over 40 briefs were filed with the Supreme Court, including one by Gov. Gavin Newsom. He praised the decision on Friday, as did some Republican lawmakers. Outside experts are calling it the court’s biggest decision on homelessness in decades.

The decision was 6-3, with Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson dissenting. 

Court cites Cal Cities and CSAC brief

The case, Grants Pass v. Johnson, was brought forth by an Oregon city that made it functionally illegal to camp on public property. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the city’s ordinance, relying on previous precedent in Martin v. Boise.

Martin v. Boise determined cities could not enforce public camping ordinances against “involuntarily” homeless people if there were more homeless persons than “practically available” shelter beds.

Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, noted that Martin v. Boise had caused confusion and led to a proliferation of lawsuits. He observed it had “plunged courts and cities across the Ninth Circuit into waves of litigation” and the Ninth Circuit took an important tool to reduce homelessness “off the table.”

The court’s opinion cited the brief filed by Cal Cities and the California State Association of Counties emphasizing local investments in shelter, affordable housing, and behavioral health programs. 

“Homelessness is complex,” the opinion observed. “Its causes are many.” “So may be the public policy responses required to address it.”

What exactly does the decision say?

The court held that the cruel and unusual punishments clause focuses on the method or type of punishment a government may impose after a criminal conviction — not whether a government may criminalize certain behavior in the first place. The court found it could not determine that the punishments Grants Pass imposed — limited fines, temporary anti-public camping orders, and short jail sentences for violations — qualified as cruel and unusual.

The Eighth Amendment does not grant federal judges the primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses, the court held. Nor does it prohibit local governments from regulating camping on public property. The court observed that no other circuit followed Martin’s lead with respect to public camping laws.

It also noted the city’s public-camping ordinances did not criminalize status. They merely forbid actions and applied to anyone engaging in the conduct.

“This decision has restored common sense and control back to cities,” Sacramento City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood told Cal Cities.

The opinion acknowledged the role of state and local government in addressing the complex issue of homelessness. A handful of federal judges “cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness,” the opinion stated.

The Eighth Amendment does not allow federal judges to “wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy,” the court opined. Nor should courts interfere with “essential considerations of federalism” that allow jurisdictions to draft their own criminal laws.

The ruling is welcome news for many cities in the Ninth Circuit, which have repeatedly expressed concerns about Martin v. Boise and its subsequent application by lower courts. Its vast and overreaching application led to dozens of lawsuits, trapping cities in no-win situations.

The court observed Martin left cities guessing what they were allowed to regulate when faced with conflicting public needs. This left them mired in litigation instead of responding to the homelessness crisis. The court noted the judicial direction following Martin was “issued by federal courts removed from realities of the ground,” and their rules produced confusion and uncertainty. The court’s decision will help significantly resolve that uncertainty.

For information about how this ruling could impact your city, please consult your city attorney.