Eye On Boise

Federal appeals court revives homeless lawsuit against Boise over camping

A federal appellate court has revived a lawsuit brought by homeless Idaho residents against the city of Boise over ordinances that bar sleeping and camping in public spaces. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling sends the 2009 lawsuit back to Boise's U.S. District Court for consideration. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Federal appeals court revives homeless lawsuit
By REBECCA BOONE, Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal appellate court has revived a lawsuit brought by homeless Idaho residents against the city of Boise over ordinances that bar sleeping and camping in public spaces.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down the ruling Thursday, sending the lawsuit back to Boise's U.S. District Court for consideration.

Attorney Howard Belodoff and Idaho Legal Aid sued the city and the Boise Police Department in 2009 on behalf of eight homeless residents who had been arrested or cited for violating the city's rules against sleeping in public. The group contends that the ordinances criminalize homelessness because shelters are often full, leaving homeless residents with no choice but to sleep in parks or other public spaces.

Boise's spokesman Adam Park said city officials are still reviewing the decision, but they remained confident the ordinances and their enforcement would ultimately be upheld.

"The decision was based on procedural/jurisdictional grounds, and the Ninth Circuit never addressed the merits of Plaintiffs' claims," Park said.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Boise had one ordinance that made it a misdemeanor for any person to use any of the streets, sidewalks, parks or public places as a camping space. The city also had an ordinance that said sleeping in public places was "disorderly conduct" subject to a misdemeanor, and that ordinance applied to anyone who occupied, lodged or slept in any building, structure or place, whether it was public or private, without permission of the owner or person in control of the location.

Between 2006 and 2009, homeless residents Robert Anderson, Janet Bell, Brian Carson, Pamela Hawkes, Basil Humphrey, Robert Martin and Lawrence Lee Smith were all arrested or cited for violating one or both ordinances. Belodoff said they were all told by Boise police officers to simply plead guilty to the charges, and that they would be let out of jail with time served and ordered to pay a fine that they would likely never be able to pay.

The group sued, contending that they often had no other choice but to sleep outside, in part because the region's shelters were frequently full, required people to participate in religious ceremonies that they didn't agree with or that they'd already reached the maximum number of nights they were allowed to stay at the shelter. They contended that the city's practice of enforcing the ordinances had the effect of criminalizing homelessness and constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

They asked a judge to order the city to expunge the records of any homeless people who were unlawfully cited or arrested under the ordinances and to reimburse the criminal fines or costs of incarceration paid by the homeless individuals as a result of the unlawful citations and arrests. They also wanted an award of damages.

But after the lawsuit was filed, the city issued a "special order" prohibiting police from enforcing the camping and sleeping ordinances when there is no available overnight shelter. All three of the city's homeless shelters at the time agreed to report voluntarily to Boise State University Dispatch when they were full, and BSU agreed to send an email advising the Boise Police Department of the reports.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush then ruled in favor of the city, saying that any challenges to their convictions on the ordinances had to be done in the state appellate courts, and that their claim that the ordinances were unconstitutional was moot because the city agreed not to enforce them when shelters were full.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the federal district court did have jurisdiction over the matter because the homeless residents weren't challenging their convictions under the ordinance but rather the ordinance itself. The appellate panel also said the district court had to consider the Eighth Amendment claims of cruel and unusual punishment because the city didn't show that the special order completely eliminated the chance that the ordinances would be enforced in the future.

"It's unfortunate that the city was citing people and some people were spending substantial time in jail because they were sleeping," Belodoff said. "Either there was no room in the shelter, or they were mentally ill and couldn't handle the environment, or they didn't want to participate in the religious ceremonies or they exceeded the time limit."

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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