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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane joins effort to overturn landmark homeless rights case Martin v. Boise

A homeless person cuddles with a dog outside the Cannon Street shelter on March 12, 2019, in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane has joined 20 other cities, counties and organizations asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule a consequential 2018 decision that seriously limited the ability of governments in the West to criminalize homelessness.

“This is critically important to our future,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said at a Friday news conference. “Local jurisdictions need to have more control about how we address homelessness, and we are having to spend more of our resources than we really want on those night-by-night emergency, low-barrier shelters.”

The city has signed onto an amicus brief, where organizations that are not parties to a legal case advise the court to decide a certain way, asking the Supreme Court to overturn or seriously weaken the provisions of Martin v. Boise.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018 ruled that cities are limited in the extent to which they can criminalize the homeless from sleeping on public land unless there are sufficient shelter beds available. Using criminal penalties to prohibit camping on all public land regardless of shelter space amounted to criminalizing people for the act of being homeless, which was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment, the court ruled.

If that precedent was overturned, Woodward said it would allow the city to enforce camping laws without investing so heavily in homeless shelter capacity.

The petition signed onto by Spokane, as well as Seattle, Las Vegas, the National League of Cities and more than a dozen other governments or organizations, specifically challenges Johnson v. Grants Pass, the 2020 case that broadened the protections of Martin v. Boise to include not just criminal but civil penalties.

A panel of the Ninth Circuit weighed in on the case in 2022 but declined to take another look with the full court. Grants Pass, a city in southern Oregon, has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide to scrap the precedent entirely.

Currently, the protections of Martin v. Boise and subsequent case law only apply to the nine Western states and other territories covered by the Ninth Circuit. It is possible that the Supreme Court could validate the legal rationale adopted by the Ninth Circuit Court in 2018, which would make Martin v. Boise legal precedent across the entire country.

Woodward said she was not worried about this possibility.