City Cannot Prohibit Homeless From Sleeping Outside in Public Places

On September 4, 2018, the 9th District Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Martin v. City of Boise. The Court reviewed the City’s municipal code provisions prohibiting sleeping outdoors when there was capacity in City shelters. The Court  held that these provisions were unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.


The plaintiffs challenged two ordinances directed at the homeless population. First, the City’s municipal code made it a misdemeanor to use “any of the streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a camping place at any time” (the “Camping Ordinance”). Second, “occupying, lodging, or sleeping in any building, structure, or public place… without permission” was also punishable as a misdemeanor (the “Disorderly Conduct Ordinance”). The plaintiffs were homeless persons who were cited by the City pursuant to these ordinances and contended that they were at risk of future citations.

The City and the surrounding county had a significant and increasing homeless population.

The City had three private homeless shelters offering emergency services. Two of the shelters were operated by a religious nonprofit organization; one was only open to men, the other only to women and children. These two religion-based shelters offered two types of programs for the homeless: the “Emergency Services Program” offered temporary shelter, food, and clothing to anyone in need, and the “Discipleship Program” offered permanent shelter for people willing to engage in extensive religious study.

Legal Conclusions

The crux of the plaintiffs’ argument was that the “Cruel and Unusual Punishments” clause of the Eighth Amendment barred the City from enforcing its Camping and Disorderly Conduct Ordinances. The Eighth Amendment substantively limits what conduct a city can criminalize. One such limit is that a city cannot prosecute a person for “status” crimes, meaning that criminal penalties cannot be imposed for a person’s condition he is powerless to change. An extension of this principle is that cities cannot punish an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of one’s status or being.

As a result, the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless persons who cannot obtain shelter. These activities are “universal and unavoidable consequences of being human,” regardless of whether they are defined as acts or conditions. Just as cities may not criminalize the state of being “homeless in public places,” cities may not “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.”

The Court concluded that the City’s two ordinances criminalize the simple act of sleeping outdoors. The City’s homeless shelters were regularly filled to capacity; the City’s homeless population typically had little choice but to sleep outdoors. The only other option for the homeless was the religious shelters’ “Discipleship Program.” The Court declined to consider this a meaningful choice for the homeless because of its religious requirements; the City could not coerce homeless persons to attend religion-based treatment programs without running afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. As long as there was no option of sleeping indoors, the City could not criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.

The Court’s ruling has important limitations. The City is not required to ensure that there is sufficient shelter for the homeless. The City is also not obligated to turn a blind eye towards everyone sleeping outdoors at their pleasure. The Court’s holding is limited to the specific situation where homeless persons have no other meaningful choice except to sleep outdoors.

Guidance for Cities and Counties

The court’s decision jeopardizes the enforcement of a city’s camping ordinance. In California, homelessness is a significant and growing dilemma. Cities across the state are struggling to manage the issue in a manner that is both productive and humane. Homeless shelters cannot keep up with the demand for their services, and homeless encampments are increasingly common.

Our immediate recommendation is to suspend enforcement of any camping ordinances. Cities will have to review the provisions of their camping ordinances to ensure they are in compliance with the Martin v. Boise decision.


If you have any questions concerning this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

Mona G. Ebrahimi | 916.321.4597