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Los Angeles city attorney asks Supreme Court to rule on where homeless can sleep

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City Attorney Mike Feuer says the Martin v. Boise decision was too ambiguous

Robyn Beck / AFP
Tents line the street in Skid Row.
Roby ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The city of Los Angeles is joining the fight against a ruling that lets homeless residents sleep on sidewalks when there aren’t enough shelters.

City Attorney Mike Feuer announced today that he filed an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take on Martin v. Boise, saying his office needs more clarity on its ability to enforce sidewalk bans.

In the brief, Feuer says the city agrees that “no individual should be susceptible to punishment for sleeping on the sidewalk at night, if no alternative shelter is available.” But, he argues, the Boise decision—which covers nine states in the west, including California— raises more questions than it answers.

“The city requires clear and practical guidelines on the proper scope of its authority to strike the best possible balance in our shared public spaces,” Feuer writes. “Boise does not give that requisite guidance.”

The brief was filed one day after the Los Angeles City Council debated how it would handle the Boise decision. In the case, a majority of judges in the Ninth Circuit Court 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.”

The judges, however, also noted that “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.”

Boise is appealing the case to the Supreme Court.

The city attorney’s office has drafted rules that it says would bring Los Angeles into compliance with the Ninth Circuit Court decision. The rules would make it illegal to sit, sleep, and lie near parks, bridges, schools and routes to schools, existing shelters, on bike and recreational paths, and in “crowded sidewalk areas” and major venues.

On Tuesday, multiple councilmembers said they support some of the city attorney’s proposed restrictions but seemed to agree that the rules, as drafted, go too far.

Similar to Boise, the city of Los Angeles has a blanket ban against sleeping in public spaces. But the ordinance, known as 41.18, has not been enforced at night for 12 years under a settlement with the ACLU.

In the amicus brief, the city attorney says there are three questions left unresolved in the Boise decision. One of those questions is: How many beds, exactly, must the city build before it can take “enforcement action.”

On Tuesday, Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo said the more important question in the sidewalk ban debate is not what’s legal, but what is “just.”

Los Angeles County plans to submit an amicus brief too. Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Janice Hahn have 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 last week.