SCOTUS Rejects Hearing Boise Homeless Case

Dec 16, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear the case Boise v. Martin, which means a prior ruling stands: the city’s ordinance against sleeping in public is unconstitutional.

That’s true for the entire western U.S., too, ranging from other rural western states like Montana and Alaska to states with much more extreme homelessness challenges, like California, Washington and Oregon.

The case started out a decade ago, when Idaho Legal Aid Services, Inc. helped seven homeless and formerly homeless residents file suit against Idaho’s capital after getting ticketed for sleeping in public.

The city did change its policies in 2014 so people would only be cited for sleeping in public if there was room available at homeless shelters. While that was enough for a federal magistrate judge to dismiss the suit, the plaintiffs appealed to the 9th Circuit Court.

That court ultimately found the city’s changes weren’t enough, and that it was still cruel and unusual punishment to cite people for sleeping in public. 

That case will now be headed back to Idaho courts where the city will have to find a way to comply with the circuit court’s ruling. 

Mayor Dave Bieter has been a strong force behind the case, saying that the camping ordinance is a necessary tool to keep tent cities from forming. He often pointed to one homeless encampment called Cooper Court that the city had shut down for unsafe and unsanitary conditions. He said the Supreme Court's decision to not hear the case was "disappointing."

“We believe that the 9th Circuit’s most recent decision in this case leaves the city’s fundamental ability to protect public health and safety on its own streets very uncertain. Without further clarification by the courts, our most vulnerable residents – the very people this suit purports to be protecting – would be victimized by the conditions in camps that could crop up," he said in a press release.

However, he won’t be in charge for long. Mayor-Elect Lauren McLean will be sworn in in January; she’s voiced several concerns over the case, saying she wouldn’t put a stop to it if the Supreme Court took it up, but saying she would rather focus on solutions to Boise’s homelessness problems. 

“Today's events underscore what I believed to be true all along: we needed to be planning for this scenario. I look forward to continuing and expanding the City of Boise's good work with key community partners in housing and homelessness, and believe we have effective, humane, and constitutionally sound solutions in our grasp," she said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Boise changed its policies so that people would only be cited for sleeping in public if there wasn’t room at homeless shelters. The change Boise actually made was that people would only be sited if there was room available at a shelter.

Find reporter Madelyn Beck on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

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