Supreme Court’s Ruling on Homeless Camps Marks Big Win for Public Safety

In a significant victory for law enforcement and public safety, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 28 that cities have the authority to arrest, cite and fine people who camp outside on public property. The ruling empowers law enforcement across California and other western states to effectively dismantle or prohibit homeless encampments that have surged throughout the West Coast, causing heightened concerns over sanitation, public health and safety.

“Today’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court provides state and local officials the definitive authority to implement and enforce policies to clear unsafe encampments from our streets,” Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “This decision removes the legal ambiguities that have tied the hands of local officials for years and limited their ability to deliver on common-sense measures to protect the safety and well-being of our communities.”

In Grants Pass v. Johnson, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6–3 decision that fining and arresting homeless people does not violate constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Officers can now issue civil citations, often misdemeanors, to people who have set up temporary shelters. Those citations, when ignored, may now lead to jail time.

The case originated from Grants Pass, Oregon, after the city was sued for passing a law that said people who camp on city streets could be subject to citations, fines and removal from those public spaces. Advocates argued that the law amounted to cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment — because it would criminalize sleeping, a basic human need.

Grants Pass attorneys argued that cruel and unusual punishment applied to things like torture or hard labor sentences — not tickets for camping in public spaces. A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority. “A handful of federal judges cannot begin to ‘match’ the collective wisdom the American people possess in deciding ‘how best to handle’ a pressing social question like homelessness.”

The case is the most noteworthy to come before the high court in decades on the issue, and the decision arrives as California continues to grapple with its growing homeless population. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 181,399 people are homeless in California, a startling 40% increase from just five years ago.

“Homelessness in California is a crisis and a tragedy, but today is a new day,” Representative Kevin Kiley said in a statement. “A misguided lower court decision has caused the problem to grow much worse in recent years by tying the hands of local communities with an unworkable rule that exists nowhere else in the country.”

The new ruling overturns the 2018 Martin v. Boise case, which barred cities from criminalizing homeless people on public property unless there was an available shelter bed for them. The Boise ruling caused many law enforcement agencies to complain that the decision tied their hands and prevented them from enforcing commonsense ordinances governing homeless encampments.

The Boise “experiment” forced cities and law enforcement agencies to determine if there was a shelter bed available for each homeless individual they attempted to fine or arrest, Gorsuch wrote. “Those unavoidable questions have plunged courts and cities across the Ninth Circuit into waves of litigation,” he said.

San Francisco is one of several California cities looking to crack down on the state’s homelessness crisis following the new ruling.

“This decision has really provided us with clarity that we will use in order to be a lot more aggressive with people who are choosing to stay on the streets of San Francisco — especially when we’re offering them help,” Mayor London Breed said during a news conference.

Following the new ruling, the pressure now falls on officials like Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, known for his lax stance on crime and homelessness, to take decisive action.

“For too long, law enforcement has been constrained by policies that hamper our ability to address the growing crisis of homelessness effectively,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “It’s time for Gascón and others to step up and support measures that ensure the safety and well-being of all residents. This ruling gives us added tools to protect our community, and it’s crucial that our officials use them responsibly and proactively.”