Supreme Court Considers Taking Up Case On Whether Homeless Can Legally Sleep In Public Places
KPBS Midday Edition Segments / December 6, 2019
Speaker 1: 00:00 Should homeless people have the right to sleep on the street. The U S Supreme court today is considering whether to jump into that debate. A coalition of civic groups, many from California are asking the court to consider taking an appeal of a ninth circuit court decision. That ruling prohibited laws aimed at stopping homeless people from sleeping on the street if there is no alternative shelter available. Journey me is Los Angeles times Supreme court reporter David Savage and David, welcome to the program.
Speaker 2: 00:29 I'm Erin
Speaker 1: 00:30 now. This case didn't start with homeless people on the streets of LA, but rather with an ordinance up in Boise, Idaho. Can you tell us about that?
Speaker 2: 00:39 Yeah. She wouldn't think that was the obvious place for a fight over the homeless. Um, there was a 2007, 2008. This case goes way back. There were some, several homeless people were given fines, 25, $75 for violating the camping ordinance. Some legal aid attorneys brought a lawsuit, uh, in the courts, basically contending it was unconstitutional to punish these people because they had nowhere to live no home. And, um, and, and they ended up winning a major ruling from the ninth circuit court of appeals that said it's cruel and unusual punishment under the eighth amendment to punish or use the criminal laws against people who are sleeping on the sidewalk or camping on the sidewalk and have no other place to live.
Speaker 1: 01:34 And it was a rather sweeping sort of a ruling from the ninth circuit, wasn't it?
Speaker 2: 01:38 Yes, because it basically says if the ninth circuit has the jurisdiction and stands in California and eight other States on the West coast, if it's unconstitutional, then every city in town has a problem with, you know, they can't enforce ordinances against camping and public parks or camping on the sidewalks for weeks on end because almost none of them can say to the court, Oh, we have adequate shelter spaces for every homeless person who could want one.
Speaker 1: 02:08 Now there are at least 20 friend of the court briefs filed in an effort to get this ruling overturned, including from San Diego and LA and several other California communities. What are some of their arguments?
Speaker 2: 02:21 Well, their big legal argument is that the constitution really doesn't have anything to do with this, that it's almost never in the courts history of the, has the court used the eighth amendment cruel and unusual punishment to strike down a law. And you know, everybody knows the eighth amendment from for example, death penalty cases, whether it's cruel to put somebody to death who if their head of mental disability, but the ninth circuit applied the eighth amendment to say all these laws are unconstitutional because you're punishing a person because of his status and he has no way to, anyway, it's a little bit of an unusual legal rationale. And then the second reason of course is what we're talking about that it has a big practical impact that um, a whole lot of cities say we need some authority, some discretion to keep our sidewalks open and to limit, I don't know, camping or limit people from sleeping on the streets in certain places. So we need that authority and it's a big deal if all those laws cannot be enforced.
Speaker 1: 03:25 Now, San Diego is dealt with deadly consequences of having homeless people camped on the streets with inadequate hygiene facilities. 20 people died two years ago in a hepatitis a outbreak. Right now San Diego is making a major effort to provide adequate alternative shelter. But the problem of street living in Los Angeles is even worse. Can LA even hope to provide alternative shelter?
Speaker 2: 03:50 No, not for all the people. I mean, they, they, they are building more shelters. They have more spaces, but there's something like 36,000 people living on the streets and, and the city may have, uh, a couple thousand, 9,000 shelter spaces. So no, there's no way that they can provide shelter to all those people. And so as I say, this court ruling seems to say you can't really use, the city can't really enforce the laws on the sidewalk, uh, because it's, it's cruel in sense, unconstitutional.
Speaker 1: 04:22 One of the arguments against this ruling that you're talking about this cruel and unusual ruling from the ninth circuit is that it's vague. And as you're saying unworkable, for instance, does it address things like situations where homeless people don't want alternative shelter?
Speaker 2: 04:39 No. Um, you are right about the point that it's, it is sort of vague and uncertain because the ninth circuit on the one hand said these laws cannot be enforced. But then some of them seem to think, Oh, we didn't really mean no laws enforced because it's a little bit unclear. Yes. What if there's a shelter available and the person says, Oh, I don't want to go there. Can the city say, well, you can't sleep on the street if there's a shelter space available that's unclear. It's unclear if they've got, if you've got a campsite that's been there on the streets for a long time and it's interfering or blocking, some city officials say we can still use the laws to limit, um, camping or limit, uh, where people sleep. But that's a little bit unclear too.
Speaker 1: 05:24 The Supreme court justices are today considering whether to take up this appeal. What does that mean? What does it involve? Will they be hearing arguments?
Speaker 2: 05:34 Oh, that's what they have to decide. So they meet every Friday, essentially to go over pending appeals. Uh, they will talk about this. This one has a good chance of getting granted because for the reasons we said, there's a whole lot of interest in the case and a lot of practical. So they vote, uh, it takes four votes to grant a case if they're going to grant it. And as I say, I think it's, they won't announce it for another week. They hold them over for a week for a second discussion. Just, it's a procedural thing to make sure there's no flaws. If they grant the case, they will hear it in the spring, maybe March, April, and then issue a ruling. By June,
Speaker 1: 06:14 I have been speaking with Los Angeles times, Supreme court reporter David Savage. David, thank you very much. Good to talk with you.
Speaker 3: 06:26 [inaudible].
U.S. Supreme Court justices are meeting Friday to decide whether to take up an appeal of a 9th Circuit ruling on homelessness. Whatever they decide could have a major impact on San Diego and other cities.