Bell vs. City of Boise (Department of Justice)
Everywhere across the country homelessness, an often involuntary act, is criminalized. Cities all over are making it illegal to be homeless and even to aid homeless people. Being homeless is a difficult ordeal, and for many it can seem, and is, never-ending, yet these cities are doing all they can to make it even more difficult for those that are homeless. In response, many people and organizations are fighting against these ordinances and laws that seek to criminalize homelessness.
Boise, Idaho is one of these many places that criminalizes homelessness. The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty regularly document cities who use law enforcement in place of social services. Continuously, the police are citing and fining people for sleeping on the streets, despite the fact that the shelters are full and there is nowhere for them to go. However, here, homeless people have decided to fight back against the city of Boise and sue them in federal court. Along with homeless people, the Department of Justice on August 6, 2015 argued on behalf of the homeless population in Boise. Here is the Justice Department press release on the issue.
Sharon Bett, a trial attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, argued that fining/criminalizing a homeless person for sleeping on the street, when the shelters are full, violates the 8th amendment’s clause on “Cruel and Unusual Punishments.” Bett notes that legal precedent, with regards to the 8th amendment, has stated that acts of conduct can be criminalized, but not an individual’s status. For example, someone can be fined for drinking alcohol in public, but not fined for being an alcoholic. In other court cases, dating back to the past decade, the courts have continuously maintained that being homeless is a status, not a conduct. Here is our blog entry on the subject.
This is a historic decision to issue a "statement of interest" by the Justice Department. Here is the full document.