SCOTUS To Weigh In On Criminalization Of Involuntary Homelessness In Oregon With Excessive Fines, Criminal Trespass Charges

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Rutherford Institute Denounces Oregon City Law Against Sleeping, Camping in Public as Unconstitutional Attempt to Criminalize Homelessness

Editor’s note: Readers may remember our in depth coverage on this nationwide issue of criminalizing homelessness using various means, including high fines and forbidding their presence within a particular city.  As mentioned in the article below, this does not address the root cause of why people can’t find housing, since the vast majority are involuntarily homeless, instead merely sweeping it away to another locality where it can become their problem. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Rutherford Institute is challenging attempts by Oregon city officials in Grants Pass to prohibit sleeping and camping in public through the use of excessive fines and criminal trespass charges.

In pushing back against a nationwide trend in urban and suburban communities to criminalize homelessness, the Institute has joined the Fines and Fees Justice Center and Street Democracy in an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson, which argues that the City’s ordinances against sleeping and camping in public violate the Excessive Fines Clause and the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause of the Eighth Amendment.

“The homeless, by far the most vulnerable in any community, have found themselves increasingly displaced and disadvantaged by laws that will only worsen their plight,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “While we recognize the difficulties that public officials face in addressing the problems arising from homelessness, ​t​he use of excessive fines to penalize public sleeping is a counterproductive, cosmetic attempt​ to address homelessness​ ​that does nothing to resolve the underlying problems​.”

In 2013, following a discussion alluding to the need to “make it uncomfortable enough for [homeless persons] in our city so they will want to move on down the road,” officials in Grants Pass, Oregon, increased enforcement of anti-sleeping and anti-camping ordinances prohibiting homeless persons from using a blanket or a cardboard box for protection from the weather while sleeping within the City’s limits. The ordinances result in civil fines up to several hundred dollars per violation, and persons found to violate ordinances multiple times can be barred from all City property and subject to criminal prosecution for trespassing. Unfortunately, while the city sought to discourage vagrancy, it did nothing to address the source of the homeless problem. As a non-profit organization serving homeless people in the area reported, “almost all of the homeless people in Grants Pass are involuntarily homeless. There is simply no place in Grants Pass for them to find affordable housing or shelter. They are not choosing to live on the street or in the woods.”


In response to a class action lawsuit that was subsequently filed on behalf of all involuntarily homeless individuals living in Grants Pass, the district court found the ordinances to be unconstitutional but noted that the City could still limit camping or sleeping at certain times and places, limit the amount of bedding materials allowed, and pursue other options to prevent the erection of encampments that cause public health and safety concerns. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals mostly affirmed, holding that it is unconstitutional to punish simply sleeping in public with rudimentary forms of protection against snow, frost, or rain if one has nowhere else to sleep. The City appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has agreed to weigh in on the issues.

Hyland Hunt and Ruthanne M. Deutsch of Deutsch Hunt PLLC assisted with advancing the coalition’s arguments in the City of Grants Pass v. Johnson amicus brief.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms

Banner Image: Homeless man and his dog. Image Credit – Nick Fewings


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The Rutherford Institute

Our job is to make the government play by the rules of the Constitution. There are 319 million of us in this country. Imagine what we could accomplish if we actually worked together, presented a united front, and spoke with one voice. Tyranny wouldn't stand a chance. Here at The Rutherford Institute, we believe that the best defense against tyranny is an educated citizenry that knows their rights and is prepared to stand up for them. That's why we continue to sound the alarm over threats to our freedoms and help Americans push back against the government’s heavy-handed tyranny on almost every front

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