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Supreme Court’s Ruling in Grants Pass Allows Cities to Consider Use of Camping Bans as Policy Tool

In the recent ruling in the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson et al., Case No. 23-175, decided on June 28, 2024, the United States Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s earlier decision. This alters the legal landscape in California and other Western states within the Ninth Circuit. The Court concluded that a broadly applicable ordinance banning camping, sleeping, and overnight parking in public areas does not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Case Specifics: Anti-Camping Ordinances in Grants Pass, Oregon
The case specifically evaluated anti-camping ordinances in Grants Pass, Oregon, which prohibited camping or overnight parking on public property. Initial violations led to fines, with repeat offenders facing potential jail time. The Ninth Circuit had previously ruled that these ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment, because the homeless population exceeded available shelter beds. The Ninth Circuit thus reasoned that enforcement was a punishment for being homeless.

Supreme Court’s Ruling
In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court disagreed with and reversed the Ninth Circuit. The Court noted the extensive interest from numerous states, cities, and counties across the Ninth Circuit, as highlighted in amicus briefs. The Court acknowledged these briefs which argued that anti-camping laws are tools to encourage homeless individuals to accept services and maintain safe public spaces.

Legal Reasoning
The Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment pertains to the method of punishment post-conviction, not to the criminalization of specific behaviors. The Supreme Court’s majority opinion also reasoned that camping bans target actions, not the status of homelessness.

Impact on Cities & Policy Implications
The Supreme Court’s ruling allows cities to consider camping bans as tools to address health and safety issues associated with homeless encampments in public spaces. Cities can evaluate potential anti-camping ordinances as part of their strategies to tackle the complicated issues and challenges regarding homelessness in their respective jurisdictions.

Further Considerations
Cities should remain mindful that the Supreme Court’s ruling in City of Grants Pass still allows for constitutional challenges to camping bans on the grounds that they violate the due process clause or excessive fines clause. Moreover, where camping bans allow for the impoundment of tents, blankets or other personal effects, cities should have rules in place regarding notice, collection, and storage as the impoundment of an unhoused individual’s personal effects is subject to the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure.