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U.S. Supreme Court Effectively Rules That Prosecuting People for Being Homeless Is Illegal


In December, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear one city’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that arresting and prosecuting the homeless was a violation of their constitutional rights, effectively keeping in place that ruling and placing all states and cities on notice that this practice violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Unfortunately, people have been arrested (and this behavior criminalized) for this very same reason in North Carolina a number of times, and this includes activities such as panhandling. However, the decision arguably opens up a viable civil rights challenge for anyone who has been arrested for simply living on the streets because they have no other option.

The Ruling Is Arguably Broad & Applies to Prosecution of All Homeless for Sleeping On Streets

The lower court’s ruling came out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which indicated that jailing or fining homeless people for living outside when they could not get into shelters was unconstitutional. Specifically, the court stated that the government cannot criminalize indigent people for sleeping outdoors as though there is any other choice. As a result, there have been some concerns that the decision leaves wiggle room for cities to continue to prosecute the homeless if they can claim that there are open spaces at shelters. However, the court also indicated that even shelters that have a policy of never turning someone away have barriers that make it difficult to stay there, such as limitations on the number of days that someone can stay there and, in addition, there have been previous rulings – also out of the 9th Circuit – that have shot down cities’ attempts to arrest the homeless for living on the streets; rulings that do not contain any qualifying language regarding open shelters.

In some circumstances, cities can punish certain types of behavior if they can successfully argue that there is a rational basis for the policy. In this case, the city tried to argue that the prohibition was necessary for public health and safety, in part due to homeless encampments drawing gang activity and drug dealing. The city argued that, as a result, it had no choice but to legally define camping outdoors as “disorderly conduct,” as prohibited by law. The policy was challenged by six homeless residents who were prosecuted as a result, and the court sided with the plaintiffs, finding that the city’s ordinances violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Contact Our North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorneys If Your Rights Have Been Violated

If you have been arrested in North Carolina in violation of your constitutional rights, contact our experienced North Carolina criminal attorneys at the Hauter Law Firm, PC today to find out how we can aggressively represent your legal rights.



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