The U.S. Supreme Court Overturns the 9th Circuit Injunction Against Grants Pass’ Camping Regulations

On Friday, June 28, 2024, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its highly anticipated decision in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, et al.  (USSC No. 23-175.) (“Grants Pass”).  In a 6 to 3 decision, the Court held that Grants Pass’ generally applicable ordinances prohibiting camping on public property do not violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the U.S Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. Based upon this holding the Court reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Johnson v. City of Grants Pass that enjoined camping regulations adopted by Grants Pass, Oregon, and sent the case back to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.1

Grants Pass has three laws regulating camping on public property that were the subject of this litigation.  The first prohibits sleeping on public sidewalks, streets, or alleyways.  The second prohibits camping on public property where camping is defined as setting up or remaining in or at a campsite.  A “campsite” is defined “as any place where bedding, sleeping bag[s], or other material used for bedding purposes, or any stove or fire is placed for the purpose of maintaining a temporary place to live.” The third prohibits camping and overnight parking in the city’s parks. Penalties for violating these ordinances escalate stepwise.  An initial violation may trigger a fine.  Those who receive multiple citations may be subject to an order barring them from city parks for 30 days.  The violation of a stay away order can constitute criminal trespass, punishable by a maximum of 30 days in prison and a $1,250 fine.2

In reaching its decision upholding camping regulations, the Court stated the laws regulate conduct not a person’s status.  Further the Court held the civil and criminal penalties for violating Grants Pass’ camping laws were not cruel because they are not designed to “superadd” terror, pain, or disgrace.  The Court then held the punishments are also not unusual, because similarly limited fines and jail terms have been and remain among the usual modes for punishing criminal offenses throughout the country.3

In addition, the Court soundly rejected the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Martin v. City of Boise, Idaho4 which the Ninth Circuit had affirmed in Johnson v. Grants Pass5 that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause bars cities from enforcing public-camping ordinances like these against homeless individuals whenever the number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction exceeds the number of “practically available” shelter beds.6 In reaching this holding, the Ninth Circuit stated  “ . . . [j]ust as the state may not criminalize the state of being “homeless in public places,” the state may not “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.”7 

In rejecting that decision, the Supreme Court stated the Ninth Circuit’s holding is not supported by the text of the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause.  In addition, the Court stated that the Ninth Circuit’s holding improperly extended the Supreme Court’s decision in Robinson v. California, that invalidated a California law providing that “‘[n]o person shall . . .be addicted to the use of narcotics.’”8 The Court explained that while California could not make “the ‘status’ of narcotic addiction a criminal offense,” per Robinson, the Court did not mean to cast doubt on the States’ “broad power” to prohibit behavior even by those, like the defendant, who suffer from addiction.9 Robinson at 664, 667–668.

In addition, the Court stated the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on the dissent in Powell v. Texas is misplaced.  In Powell, the defendant had been convicted under a Texas statute making it a crime to get drunk or be found in a state of intoxication in public.  The defendant argued that his public intoxication was an “‘involuntary’” byproduct of his status as an alcoholic. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, finding that it was not supported by the Court’s decision in Robinson, which recognized that its holding did nothing to curtail a State’s authority to secure a conviction when “the accused has committed some act . . . society has an interest in preventing.”  The Ninth Circuit had ignored this holding in Powell, and instead relied upon the dissent that agreed with the defendant that he should not be convicted of a crime arising from involuntary conduct caused by his alcoholism.  The Supreme Court in Grants Pass rejected this legal maneuvering as completely inconsistent with the historical interpretation of the holding in Powell.10

The Supreme Court further stated that under Martin, cities must allow public camping by those who are “involuntarily” homeless.  The Court then questions how city officials and law enforcement officers are to know what it means to be “involuntarily” homeless, or whether any particular person meets that standard?  Furthermore the Court questioned how city officials and law enforcement officers are to determine in real time if there are a sufficient number of adequate and reasonable available shelter beds noting the complications associated with obtaining an accurate count of persons experiencing homelessness.  The Court concluded that the uncertainty Martin has created with regard to enforcement of camping regulations has unleashed an avalanche of litigation resulting in a handful of federal judges deciding homeless policy within their jurisdictions.  The Court  stated:

 . . . [P]eople will disagree over which policy responses [to homelessness] are best; they may experiment with one set of approaches only to find later another set works better; they may find certain responses more appropriate for some communities than others. But in our democracy, that is their right. Nor can a handful of federal judges begin to “match” the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding “how best to handle” a pressing social question like homelessness. The Constitution’s Eighth Amendment serves many important functions, but it does not authorize federal judges to wrest those rights and responsibilities from the American people and in their place dictate this Nation’s homelessness policy.11 

The Court’s opinion relies extensively on statistical and factual information contained in many of the Amicus Briefs filed in support of the City of Grants Pass’ appeal that recount the significant challenges cities and counties have faced trying to comply with the unclear rules the Ninth Circuit established in Martin and Grants Pass and supports the conclusion the Martin rules have only worsened the homelessness crisis.  For example, the Court noted the City of Chico, California, thought it was complying with Martin when it constructed an outdoor shelter facility at its municipal airport to accommodate its homeless population.  That shelter included “protective fencing, large water totes, handwashing stations, portable toilets, and a large canopy for shade.”  Still, a district court enjoined the city from enforcing its public-camping ordinance because in that court’s view, “appropriate” shelter requires indoor not outdoor spaces12. In addition, the Court cited to the two amicus briefs filed by Aleshire & Wynder on behalf of thirteen California cities.  Specifically, the opinion references data from the Aleshire & Wynder brief detailing the cities’ experience that the vast majority of their homeless populations are not actively seeking shelter and refuse all services13 and that the Martin injunctions have weakened the ability of public officials to persuade persons experiencing homelessness to accept shelter beds and other services.14


1 City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson, 603 U.S. 1 (2024)

2 Id. at 8.

3 Id. at 11.

4 920 F.3d 584 (2019).

5 72 F.4th 868 (2023).

6 920 F. 3d 584, 617. 

7 Grants Pass Supra 603 U.S. at 617. 

8 370 U. S. 660-666.

9 Id. at 667-668.

10 Grants Pass Supra,603 12-16.

11 Id. at 19.

12 Id. at 17.

13 Id. at 7.

14 Id. at 7., fn. 3.

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