WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court meets Friday to consider for the first time whether the Constitution gives homeless people a right to sleep on the sidewalk.
The justices are weighing an appeal of a much-disputed ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that held last year that it was cruel and unusual punishment to enforce criminal laws against homeless people who are living on the street if a city doesn't offer enough shelters as an alternative.
The appeals court's opinion quoted Anatole France's famous comment that "the law, in all its majestic equality, forbids the rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges," and from there, it announced a principle of human rights to strike down city laws that "criminalize the simple act of sleeping outside on public property."
As precedent, Judge Marsha Berzon cited parts of a 1968 Supreme Court opinion in which several justices questioned whether "chronic alcoholics" may be punished for being drunk in public if they cannot control themselves.
"This principle compels the conclusion that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter," she wrote for the three-judge panel. She described the ruling as "narrow ... That is, so long as there no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property."
The dissenters -- and officials in California and the other eight western states covered by the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction -- said the ruling was anything but narrow.
The ruling "shackles the hands of public officials trying to redress the serious societal concern of homelessness," dissenting Judge Milan Smith wrote.
Unless they can provide shelter for all, "local governments are forbidden from enforcing laws restricting sleeping and camping," he said. "City officials will be powerless to assist residents lodging valid complaints about the health and safety of their neighborhoods."
Los Angeles and many other cities have asked the court to take up the case. The 9th Circuit has jurisdiction in nine western states from Alaska to Arizona.
The appeals court's ruling struck down a city ordinance in Boise, Idaho, that made it a misdemeanor to camp or sleep on sidewalks, parks or other places without permission. Such ordinances are common in many other cities and towns. The case began a decade ago when Robert Martin and five other homeless individuals joined a suit after they were given fines of $25 to $75 for violating Boise's anti-camping ordinance.