A federal appellate court ruled this week that laws banning homeless people from sleeping or camping on public property when no other shelter is available violate the Constitution, raising questions about a controversial ordinance passed by the Sonora City Council last year.
Following a lengthy legal battle that spans nine years, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated in a 38-page opinion published on Tuesday that such laws are a form of cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
The Sonora City Council voted 4-1 ln September last year to approve an ordinance that imposes possible fines and jail time for people caught sleeping or camping on public or private property without permission, in spite of protests from some who believed it essentially criminalizes being homeless.
It was based on a previous ordinance that was in effect for six months in 2015 that merchants in downtown Sonora urged the city to reinstate because of an uptick in problems that people were associating with homeless people at the time.
City officials and attorneys referred to the ordinance as a ban on “urban camping,” something that a number of other cities throughout California and the U.S. have enacted, while those who were against it sometimes called it a “homeless ban.”
Sonora Mayor Jim Garaventa, who served as mayor pro-tem at the time, was the only member of the council who voted against the ordinance and couldn’t be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
City Administrator Tim Miller said he was aware of the decision and has reviewed a summary, but declined to make a statement on what it means for the city’s ordinance because he has yet to discuss it with City Attorney Douglas White.
“We haven’t time to thoroughly evaluate it yet,” Miller said. “To the extent that this particular decision is applicable to the city and our ordinance, we’ll take a look at that and address it with the council to the extent we need to.”
White did not return requests for comment.
The decision on Tuesday stems from a 2009 lawsuit filed against the City of Boise in Idaho by six homeless people who claimed their constitutional rights were violated because they were arrested and convicted under ordinances passed by the city that made it illegal to sleep or camp in public spaces.
All of the six homeless people had lived in or around the city for two years prior to their arrests and convictions.
The city argued that its ordinance directs police officers not to cite anyone when shelters are full, but the judges wrote “individuals could still be turned away for reasons other than shelter capacity, such as for exceeding the shelter’s stay limits, or for failing to take part in a shelter’s mandatory religious programs.”
There are three homeless shelters run by private, nonprofit organizations in the county where Boise is located that have between 96 and 148 beds each, according to the opinion.
One of the shelters frequently had to turn people away due to limited space. The other didn’t turn people away due to a lack of space, but required a Christ-based recovery program that precluded one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit from entering because of his religious beliefs.
“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,” the judges stated in the summary of their opinion.
There’s one 25-bed emergency shelter located in the City of Sonora that’s run by Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, which says it frequently has to turn people away due to a lack of space. The shelter also has restrictions on how long a person can stay.
The Sonora City Council put together a task force to seek long-term solutions on homelessness that discussed the possibility of establishing a “low-barrier” emergency shelter that wouldn’t have as many requirements.
However, the talks ultimately stalled in April when the task force stopped meeting in April after determining that solutions to the complex issue would require the county’s involvement as well.
An informal group featuring former members of the city’s task force and county officials met privately for the first time at the end of April, but there hasn’t been any updates given to the public since that time.
The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, based in Washington, D.C., filed the 2009 lawsuit that led to the opinion and issued a press release on Tuesday that praised the panel’s decision.
Eric Tars, senior attorney for the center, called upon cities with similar laws to redirect their efforts on what he referred to as “constructive solutions,” such as affordable housing and health services.
“Getting homeless people into housing is a win-win approach, benefitting both the individuals helped and the communities that no longer have to deal with the negative impacts of people living in public spaces, at lower cost than cycling people through the criminal justice system,” he stated in the press release.
The Sonora Police Department issued more than a dozen warnings to people camping in the woods off of Stockton Road earlier this year, though no one was fined at the time.
Under the city’s ordinance, a person must be caught violating the ordinance multiple times before facing a series of escalating fines and ultimately potential jail time.
No one from the department was available Friday to confirm whether enforcement of the ordinance ever went beyond the warnings, but Miller said he didn’t believe that fines had been issued.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.