WASHINGTON -- Laws that make it a crime for homeless people to sleep in public places even when there isn't enough room for them at a shelter unconstitutionally punish the homeless, lawyers for the Obama administration said in a court filing on Thursday.
The federal government took this position against so-called anti-camping laws in an ongoing case against the city of Boise, Idaho, which has enforced ordinances banning sleeping in public spaces and ended up convicting homeless plaintiffs.
Attorneys in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division argued that "the conduct of sleeping in a public place is indistinguishable from the status of homelessness" and that it should be "uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human" violates the Eighth Amendment. They noted that "finding a safe and legal place to sleep can be difficult or even impossible" for many homeless people.
"Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity -- i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless," the filing stated.
"Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights," Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
"Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy," said Gupta. "Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals' lives."
The court filing is embedded below: