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Homeless Encampments and the Constitution

The Rich Lowry Column

by Rich Lowry

The Supreme Court just ensured that the nation’s homelessness crisis will continue. 

The court declined to take up an appeal of a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, covering the western United States, that homeless encampments are a de facto constitutional right.

In the case, stemming from a Boise, Idaho, ordinance, the 9th Circuit maintained that enforcing a prohibition against camping in public places is a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. 

A quick reminder. The Eighth Amendment says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” It was adopted out of fear that Congress might, as Abraham Holmes put it, mimic the sorry experience of “that diabolical institution, the Inquisition,” or in the words of Patrick Henry, “introduce the practice of France, Spain, and Germany of torturing, to extort a confession of the crime.”

It’s a long way down from these fears to the city of Boise trying to keep the homeless from creating public nuisances and dangers. 

What cruel and unusual punishments were the plaintiffs found guilty of violating Boise’s camping and disorderly conduct ordinances subjected to? Tarring and feathering? The rack? No, they were all sentenced to time served, with the exception of one of them who was twice sentenced to one additional day in jail. One of the plaintiffs who pled guilty paid a $25 fine. 

Nonetheless, the 9th Circuit somehow invented constitutional warrant to declare Boise guilty of a grievous violation of the Bill of Rights. According to the 9th Circuit, such encampment laws now can’t be enforced so long as there are more homeless people than practically available shelter beds in any jurisdiction.

The ruling was a body blow to localities in the West where homelessness has been exploding. It’s not as though these places are heartless. Cities have been devoting significant resources to shelter and trying other tacks, including regional cooperation to homeless outreach teams. 

Since the basis of the 9th Circuit’s decision is that sleeping is a basic human need, it puts at risk other commonsense statutes. It is also a basic human need to defecate and urinate. A drug addict feels a need to use drugs. When will the 9th Circuit, or some other adventurous court, find Eighth Amendment protection for these?

There is an obvious public interest in tearing down encampments and keeping them from springing up. They are dens of public health risks, drug abuse and crime that significantly degrade the quality of life.

When Orange County, Calif., cleared out a big encampment last year, it found more than 13,000 needles, 5,000 pounds of waste—including human waste—and 400 tons of debris. 

Workers at City Hall in Los Angeles have been exposed to trash and bodily fluids from nearby encampments, which also were responsible for a rodent infestation at City Hall. 

San Francisco is notorious for needles and human feces on its streets.

A society that lacks the ability to prevent such blatant and revolting affronts to public order—degrading and dangerous even to their supposed beneficiaries—as lost something important. A society that tells itself that it is literally impermissible to use the law to discourage them has lost its mind. 

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

© 2019 by King Features Synd., Inc.

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