California appeals court rules homeless have right to sleep on sidewalks, in parks

Plaintiffs sought restriction on "any ordinance that punishes sleeping, lodging, or camping on public property."

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA
An appellate court upheld a ruling last week limiting San Francisco's efforts to clear drug encampments from sidewalks and public areas.

The three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Coalition on Homeless, represented by the ACLU, and prevented "the City and County of San Francisco from enforcing any ordinance that punishes sleeping, lodging, or camping on public property.”

The progressive advocacy organization challenged San Francisco's policies for clearing encampments and the court used a broad interpretation of The 8th Amendment which reads, "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

In the ruling, Circuit Judge Lucy H. Koh wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Circuit Judge Roopali H. Desai who are both Biden appointees. The opinion used an interpretation that said it was "cruel and unusual" to prevent the homeless from sleeping in public. 

Trump appointee Circuit Judge Patrick J. Bumatay dissented, writing it "cannot be cruel and unusual to prohibit homeless persons from sleeping, camping, and lodging wherever they want, whenever they want. While they are entitled to the utmost respect and compassion, homeless persons are not immune from our laws."

The US Supreme Court has already agreed to hear appeals from local governments in similar situations, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Phoenix.

California Governor Gavin Newsom argued in an amicus brief that "courts are not well-suited to micromanage such nuanced policy issues based on ill-defined rules.

Newsom said in a statement that the ruling would "only create further delays and confusion as we work to address homelessness."

The 9th Circuit panel declined to consider arguments from other California cities in favor of enforcement of local law, claiming the arguments had not been raised correctly or substantiated with facts.

However, the panel stated that the injunction only applies to "involuntarily homeless" people, or those who haven’t been offered shelter by the city.

Jen Kwart, a spokeswoman for San Francisco City Atty. David Chiu, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that the office was "disappointed" by the panel's decision not to consider arguments raised by the city. "Cities cannot reasonably be expected to solve homelessness while operating under this uncertainty. At some point, a court will need to clarify the law in this area, and it is disappointing that in the midst of an intense homelessness crisis, we all must continue to wait for that clarification."
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