Homeless camps | The Supreme Court examines the constitutionality of dismantling

(Washington) Can repressive measures taken by American cities to evict the homeless constitute unconstitutional “cruel and unusual punishment”? The nine judges of the Supreme Court appeared Monday divided on the question depending on their political orientations.

The decision of the highest court could have significant repercussions on the fate of the 653,000 homeless people recorded in 2023 in the United States.

It is seized of an appeal decision which annulled measures taken by the town of Grants Pass, in Oregon (west) prohibiting, in the name of regulating camping in public places, homeless people from use blankets, pillows or cardboard boxes to protect themselves from the cold when sleeping outside.

The court of appeal relied on its own case law considering that the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting any “cruel and unusual punishment” applied to criminal sanctions against homeless people sleeping outside unless they have “access to temporary shelter”.

The measures taken by the city “are intended to make it physically impossible for homeless people to live in Grants Pass without exposing themselves to unlimited fines and stays in prison,” argued their lawyer, Kelsi Corkran.

These measures provide for fines of several hundred dollars in the event of an infraction, accompanied by possible banishment from public spaces in the city in the event of non-payment, punishable in turn by prison and even heavier fines. .

“All these measures do is turn the city’s housing problem into someone else’s problem by driving its homeless residents to other jurisdictions,” Kelsi Corkran added during the debates. lasted two and a half hours.

But the conservative President of the Court, John Roberts, objected that this was not necessarily a criminalization of the “status” of homelessness since it could cease.

“A number of us have difficulty with the distinction between status and behavior,” the latter being subject to criminal sanction, he said.

Her progressive colleague Elena Kagan, on the other hand, criticized the municipality for criminalizing a “biological necessity”.

“You could say that breathing is also a behavior, but we would not agree to criminalize breathing in public. And for a homeless person with nowhere to go, sleeping in public is like breathing in public,” she remarked to Grants Pass attorney Theane Evangelis.

The penalties incurred “are in no way unusual punishments”, assured the latter regarding the fines and stays in prison, urging the nine judges to “put an end to the failed experiment” of the court of appeal, which “fueled the spread of encampments” of homeless people, according to her.

Similar rules, in the form of “public camping bans,” have been enacted across the country at the local and state levels to try to stem the explosion in the number of homeless people.

The Court’s decision is expected by June 30.

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