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LA County will ask Supreme Court to uphold bans against sleeping on sidewalks

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The vote was split, but some supervisors say they are otherwise “powerless to address camping in public places”

A person makes his way out of his tent among a row of tents along a sidewalk in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Los Angeles County will file an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an earlier ruling that found it is “cruel and unusual” for local governments to outlaw sleeping on the streets—when homeless residents have no where else to go.

The brief will supplement the city of Boise’s appeal of a case known as Martin vs. the city of Boise. The decision applies to the western portion of the U.S., and cities and counties are lining up to support Boise, arguing it “has tied the hands of law enforcement.”

County supervisors voted 3 to 2 in favor of filing the brief today. It’s a largely symbolic decision, as the county, unlike the city of Los Angeles, does not have a so-called anti-camping law (with the exception of beaches and high-risk fire zones).

But in their motion to submit the “friend of the court” brief, Los Angeles County Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn said that if the Supreme Court does not overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision, it could, in the future, render the county “powerless to address camping in public places by anyone until it provides shelter for everyone.”

“Now, more than ever, it’s critical we have access to every tool at our disposal to combat homelessness,” Barger said today.

The supervisors represent unincorporated Los Angeles County, including such neighborhoods as East Pasadena, East Los Angeles, Sunland, Baldwin Hills, and Altadena.

More than 80 people turned out to speak on the proposal, many of them representing the Services Not Sweeps campaign, the ACLU, and nonprofit service providers, including the Venice Family Clinic. They argued that anti-camping laws punish poor people and only make it harder for them to climb out of homelessness—and supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl, who cast the dissenting votes, agreed.

“If this case goes to the Supreme Court and is overturned, any jurisdiction, not just Los Angeles, could totally bar people from the streets,” Kuehl said. “Our goal must be to provide housing to those who need it, not to criminalize poor people who have nowhere else to go in the name of addressing the crisis.”

Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas was considered the swing vote, and when he voted to support it, he was booed.

The ruling in the Martin case came down in September. The majority judges found 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.”

But they noted “even where shelter is unavailable, an ordinance prohibiting sitting, lying, or sleeping outside at particular times or in particular locations might well be constitutionally permissible.”

That has prompted the city of Los Angeles to begin tweaking its rules. It has a blanket ban against sitting, lying, and sleeping on sidewalks that it stopped enforcing at night in 2007. Now it’s considering tailoring the rules so it would be illegal to sit, sleep, and lie near parks, freeway overpasses, schools and routes to schools, existing shelters, on bike and recreational paths, and in “crowded sidewalk areas” and major venues.

City Attorney Mike Fuerer told the Los Angeles Times that he plans to submit an amicus brief in the Martin case too, “in the hopes that the court will clarify the extent of the city’s authority to regulate when and where people sleep on the street.”