Supreme Court Lets Martin v. Boise Stand: Homeless Persons Cannot Be Punished for Sleeping in Absence of Alternatives



Contact: Crys Letona

Communications Associate

(December 16, 2019, Washington, DC) – This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by the city of Boise to review the case Martin v. Boise (formerly Bell v. Boise). This leaves in place earlier rulings by the 9th Circuit that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives. People experiencing unsheltered homelessness—at least in the 9th Circuit—can sleep more safely without facing criminal punishment for simply trying to survive on the streets.

The Supreme Court’s decision, issued without comment, means the April 2019 ruling is binding in the 9th Circuit, covering nine states including most of the western states, and carries national influence. The ruling also means that homeless individuals who have received criminal citations under Boise’s policy can now proceed with their constitutional claims against the City. The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (The Law Center), which filed the case in 2009 with co-counsel Idaho Legal Aid Services and Latham & Watkins LLP, hails this decision as being essential to encouraging cities to propose constructive alternatives to homelessness.

“We’re thrilled that the Court has let the 9th Circuit decision stand so that homeless people are not punished for sleeping on the streets when they have no other option,” said Maria Foscarinis, Executive Director at the Law Center. “But ultimately, our goal is to end homelessness through housing—which is effective and saves taxpayer dollars—so that no one has to sleep on the streets in the first place. We hope that the 9th Circuit decision will help communities find the political will to put that housing in place. Housing, not handcuffs, is what ends homelessness.”

The Martin v. Boise case challenged Boise’s enforcement of its Camping and Disorderly Conduct Ordinances against persons experiencing homelessness—those who need to sleep in public in the absence of adequate housing or shelter.  Last year, a panel of the 9th Circuit held that “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.” Following that ruling, the city of Boise petitioned the entire 9th Circuit to rehear the case (“en banc”), which was rejected in April. Boise then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case and today the Court rejected that request, thereby affirming that within the 9th Circuit, “the Eighth Amendment preclude[s] the enforcement of a statute prohibiting sleeping outside against homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter.”

“Despite the doom and gloom of the appellants and those who joined them in filing amici, this ruling is a win for everyone,” said Eric Tars, Legal Director at the Law Center. “Cities can still address encampments on their streets, they just have to do it in constructive ways that reduce harm and actually help end homelessness. Public health and public safety are best maintained by making sure everyone has an adequate place to live, not by putting homeless people in jail or giving them fines and fees they can’t pay.”

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has let the 9th Circuit’s holding stand that the Constitution ‘prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter,’” said Michael Bern, lead pro bono counsel from Latham & Watkins, who argued the case before the 9th Circuit.  “As the Department of Justice recognized earlier in this case, ‘[c]riminalizing public sleeping in cities with insufficient housing and support for homeless individuals does not improve public safety outcomes or reduce the factors that contribute to homelessness.’ With today’s decision, we hope that cities can redirect their efforts to identifying meaningful and constitutional solutions to the problem of homelessness.”

This case is part of a nationwide movement against the criminalization of homelessness, spearheaded by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty and more than 1,000 groups and individuals who have endorsed the Housing Not Handcuffs Campaign.

The Supreme Court’s decision can be read here. 9th Circuit court’s decision can be read here, and the en banc denial here.


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.

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