Groundbreaking Court Ruling: Homeless People Cannot be Punished for Sleeping Outside

sleeping outside

The bitter cold of winter is finally starting to thaw. The approximated 554,000 homeless people in the United States can now shake the winter chill from their shoulders and perhaps begin anew. Seasons are changing. Not just in the air, but all around.

Today, we celebrate a shift in legislation that could positively impact the homeless population. Tonight, in Boise, Idaho and other regions under the jurisdiction of America’s Ninth District, homeless people can rest a bit easier, knowing they can’t be arrested for sleeping outside. At least for now, while they don’t have a feasible alternative.

Martin v. the City of Boise: In Brief

This ruling comes at the tail end of a case originally filed a decade ago, wherein homeless individuals exercised their right to sue the city of Boise, Idaho for “cruel and unusual punishment” following their receipt of citations for sleeping outside. If you’ve been following the case (originally titled Bell v. Boise) you’re already aware of the tug of war that has been happening behind closed courtroom doors for the past 10 years. If not, you might not be surprised to learn the City of Boise won a motion for summary judgement in 2011. That meant the judge at the time concurred with the city in claims the plaintiffs had no case.

Had they let the matter rest, the criminalization of homelessness might have continued to escalate in the region. Fortunately, the plaintiffs persisted. With the aid of The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, alongside Idaho Legal Aid Services, and Latham & Watkins LLP, appeals were filed. The case was reversed and remanded, and at one point, in 2015, it was even dismissed.

From Behind These Clouds of Despair, the Plaintiffs and Their Patrons Never Lost Hope

The case gained traction in September of 2015, following a statement issued on behalf of the United States in favor of the plaintiffs, under the argument that shelters were full at the time of citation. Yet, even this statement wasn’t powerful enough to outweigh the opposition.

The plaintiffs were forced to appeal yet again on October 29th of that same year. It wasn’t until September of 2018 that plaintiffs Robert Martin, Robert Anderson, Pamela Hawkes, Lawrence Smith, Basil Humphrey, and Janet Boise saw victory. Almost immediately after a three-judge panel sided with the plaintiffs, ruling their citations were indeed unconstitutional, the city of Boise urged the courts to reconsider.

The victory we celebrate today is this: the judges reconsidered, and after a great deal of deliberation, they sided with the plaintiffs yet again.

In this small action, there is a much bigger statement. Are homeless people finally being not just seen, but also considered?

The Implications of This Case and Its Impact on the Ninth Circuit

This most recent ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could make a huge dent in the criminalization of homelessness. If the homeless outnumber the shelter beds, ordinances levied against them for sleeping outside will not hold up in a court of law. That is theoretically, at least. This is because the Eighth Amendment protects the right to secure shelter. It is considered one of our nationally recognized life-sustaining activities. Regions that fall under the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit include:

  • The Northern, Eastern, Southeastern, and Central Districts of California
  • The District of Hawaii
  • The District of Alaska
  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • Nevada
  • Montana
  • Arizona
  • Eastern and Western Washington

Here, and elsewhere in the United States, there exist multiple laws that target and wrongfully persecute the homeless population. But not all of these laws are related to sleeping. Other frequently criminalized activities include:

  • Sitting
  • Panhandling
  • Sharing food
  • Loafing
  • Loitering
  • Squatting and many more

Did you know? 76% of cities have laws against begging in public spaces. To that end, this huge victory is still a prelude to our cause. Even as judges rally behind the unsheltered, city representatives search desperately for loopholes, reconsiderations, and more punishment for poverty.

The Implications of This Case in Terms of its Impact on the Plaintiffs

According to official documentation, all the plaintiffs named in this case save one, “were sentenced to time served for all convictions”.

These plaintiffs might have made history, but they also spent time in jail for no other crime than poverty itself.

It’s notable to mention that a shelter gave one of the plaintiffs an ultimatum. When he exercised his own religious rights by refusing to partake in a discipleship program, the shelter evicted him. Shortly after, the city served him a citation for sleeping on the street. This is a great example of how society regularly violates homeless people’s rights, and how all human rights intertwine.

When homeless people are criminalized, their criminal records are tarnished. This makes it that much more difficult for them to secure gainful employment.

When you consider the mental and physical toll of jail time, religious discrimination, economic discrimination, and extreme poverty, the true picture of homelessness begins to paint itself. The fact that some homeless people have won the right to sleep outside without becoming incarcerated doesn’t change the fact that there are still people who have to sleep outside.

One of the biggest, most overlooked victories in this case is not just the verdict. It is also the opinion of Judge Berzon. He reflected the sentiments of us all when he stated: “the ordinances criminalizing sleeping in public places were never a viable solution to the homelessness problem”.

As we celebrate this step toward de-criminalizing and re-humanizing everyone without a home, we cannot forget the decade it took to get this far. Talk to your legislators and remind them that it should always be The City with Its People and never The City vs. Its People.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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