Court Strikes Down Citations and Fees as Cruel and Excessive Punishment

U.S. District Court of Oregon Finds Civil and Criminal Punishments for Homelessness Unconstitutional



National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty
Karianna Barr, Director of Development & Communications
Oregon Law Center
Ed Johnson, Director of Litigation

(July 29, 2020, Medford, Oregon) – On July 22, people experiencing homelessness in Grants Pass, Oregon—and across the Ninth Circuit—won further support for their right to survive.

The U.S. District Court in the District of Oregon issued an opinion in Blake v. City of Grants Pass, confirming last year’s landmark in the Ninth Circuit decision in Martin v. City of Boise in limiting a City’s ability to engage in criminalization of homelessness.

A class of plaintiffs represented by three individuals in Grants Pass—each experiencing different types of homelessness as defined by the Department of Housing & Urban Development—alleged that the city, “through a combination of ordinances, customs, and policies, has unconstitutionally punished them for conducting these life-sustaining activities and criminalized their existence.”

Despite having no shelter in town, Grants Pass engaged in a deliberate campaign to pass and heavily enforce specific ordinances targeting the life-sustaining conduct of people experiencing homelessness, with the City Council President openly stating, “the point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.” The case clarified that Martin applies not only to ordinances leading jail sentences, but also to punishing fines for engaging in life-sustaining conduct in the absence of any adequate alternative.

Last week’s decision confirmed that Martin applies not only to anti-camping ordinances, but a wide variety of anti-homeless measures, and that both the criminal and civil penalties used to punish unhoused people for existing in public spaces, when there is nowhere else to go, can violate the Eighth Amendment.

“Punishing people for involuntarily living outside violates the constitution, regardless of what form that punishment takes,” said Ed Johnson, Director of Litigation at the Oregon Law Center. “We hope this case solidifies the notion that the criminalization of homelessness is unconstitutional.”

This is the first case to clarify that civil fines levied against people simply because they are too impoverished to afford housing are not only cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment but are also excessively punitive; the court also held they violate the “excessive fines” clause of the 8th Amendment.

“We already know that housing, not handcuffs, is the more effective and cost-effective approach to ending homelessness,” says Tristia Bauman, Senior Attorney at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “The court suggested a number of constructive housing alternatives—policies that we have long recommended and fought for—that Grants Pass and other cities should implement instead of relying on law enforcement to solve homelessness, especially during the COVID-19 crisis.”

This case is part of a nationwide movement against the criminalization of homelessness, spearheaded as part of the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign. The case was filed by the Oregon Law Center. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, with pro bono assistance from Dechert, LLP, provided amicus briefs and legal support, and their 2019 Housing Not Handcuffs Report was cited in the opinion.


The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (the Law Center) is the only national organization dedicated solely to using the power of the law to prevent and end homelessness. With the support of a large network of pro bono lawyers, we address the immediate and long-term needs of people who are homeless or at risk through outreach and training, advocacy, impact litigation, and public education.

Oregon Law Center (OLC) is a non-profit organization that provides free civil legal services to low-income Oregonians. The mission of the Oregon Law Center is to achieve justice for the low-income communities of Oregon by providing a full range of the highest quality civil legal services.

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