by | September 5, 2018

By Bob Egelko and Kevin Fagan

Cities can’t make it a crime to sleep on a public street or sidewalk when no homeless shelters are available, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in a case that could affect so-called “sit/lie” ordinances in San Francisco and elsewhere.

The constitutional ban on “cruel and unusual punishment,” under the Eighth Amendment, prohibits “criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,” said the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The state, the court said, “may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless.”

The 3-0 ruling reinstated lawsuits by homeless people challenging ordinances in Boise, Idaho, that made it a crime to sleep on a sidewalk or to use any sidewalk or public property as a “camping place.” The court’s decisions apply to federal cases in nine Western states, including California. Tuesday’s ruling will become a binding precedent unless it is successfully appealed.

“Our hope, not just for Boise but for cities like San Francisco and cities across the country, is that it causes them to take a look at the laws they have on the books and have conversations about how to stop relying on those policies,” said a lawyer in the case, Eric Tars of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

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