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On June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictions on public camping issued by the city of Grants Pass do not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” reversing lower court rulings that had limited the tools available to west coast cities struggling to control an epidemic of homelessness.

This opinion overturns a 2019 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Martin v. Boise. In Martin, the court barred localities from enforcing camping bans against homeless people if there was “a greater number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction than the number of available beds in shelters.” The Ninth Circuit further limited what is considered an “available bed” by disqualifying shelter beds in a “religious atmosphere.”

Since that ruling, local governments in the west have found most of their efforts to address encampments paralyzed. One brief in support of Grants Pass noted that the Martin ruling meant that even where states in the Ninth Circuit have attempted creative solutions to address encampments those efforts have been shut down by federal courts.

In an opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court concluded that the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment cannot be used to limit government responses to homelessness. Lower courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, had cited the amendment in striking down the Grants Pass ordinance. Grants Pass had banned sleeping in cars parked on the street and in public parks. Justice Gorsuch explained that the Eighth Amendment could not be used to limit how cities and states criminalize the act of camping in public.

Advocates for the homeless had urged the court to find that camping bans are actually bans based on the status of being homeless. The court rejected that argument and found that governments are entitled to prohibit certain criminal acts. Justice Gorsuch also noted that the Eighth Amendment is about punishment of a crime, not the crime itself.

In appealing to the Supreme Court, Grants Pass was supported by most major west coast cities, all of which have struggled to manage an explosion of homeless encampments that has eroded livability and threatened businesses. They were joined by county and city associations, business associations, law enforcement, and states across the country.

Prior to oral arguments before the court, OBI joined a U.S. Chamber of Commerce amicus curiae brief that detailed the consequences of stripping state and local governments of “the discretion to enforce public health measures and ensure public safety for the benefit of all citizens.”

In 2021, the Oregon Legislature sought to codify the Martin ruling by passing a law that any local ordinance that regulates the acts of sitting, lying, sleeping or keeping warm and dry outdoors on public property must be “objectively reasonable” as to the time, place and manner with regards to homeless people. It remains unclear what effect the Grants Pass ruling will have in Oregon in light of this law, but there certainly seems to be room to argue that some camping bans may now be “objectively reasonable,” as they can no longer be determined to violate the Eighth Amendment.

Go here to read the court’s ruling.