Laws prohibiting public sleeping do not constitute cruel and unusual punishment of the homeless community, the Supreme Court said Friday in a 6-3 decision.

Justices in the majority ruled that cities can pass generally applicable laws addressing homelessness without violating the Eighth Amendment.

“Homelessness is complex. Its causes are many. So may be the public policy responses required to address it. At bottom, the question this case presents is whether the Eighth Amendment grants federal judges primary responsibility for assessing those causes and devising those responses. It does not,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the majority.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a scathing dissent, which was joined by the court’s other two more liberal justices.

She argued that the majority opinion overlooks the experiences of homeless men and women.

“It is possible to acknowledge,” Sotomayor wrote, “and balance the issues facing local governments, the humanity and dignity of homeless people, and our constitutional principles. Instead, the majority focuses almost exclusively on the needs of local governments and leaves the most vulnerable in our society with an impossible choice: Either stay awake or be arrested.”

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Case background

Like many communities, the city of Grants Pass, Oregon, has responded to its homelessness crisis in multiple ways.

It has put resources toward shelters serving homeless men and women and also passed laws addressing issues associated with large numbers of people sleeping outside, including health and safety concerns.

In the Supreme Court case, the justices considered whether the city’s ordinances on public sleeping, which ban sleeping in tents or on benches on city property, among other behaviors, turn homelessness into a crime.

“The ordinances impose a $295 fine for violations, with the fine increasing to more than $500 if it is unpaid. After two citations, police officers can issue an order that bans the individual from city property; a violation of that order exposes the individual to conviction on criminal trespass charges, which carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine,” according to SCOTUSblog.

The members of the city’s homeless community who filed the lawsuit argue that the city’s restrictions on public sleeping violate the part of the Constitution that deals with cruel and unusual punishment. They say city officials can’t prohibit sleeping outside if there aren’t enough shelter beds to go around.

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For their part, city officials argue that the policies promote public safety and help them connect homeless men and women to important services, as the Deseret News previously reported.

The lower courts, including the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled against the city, deciding that Grants Pass’ public sleeping ban violated the Constitution.

The Supreme Court has now overturned those decisions, determining that Grants Pass’ policies do not single out members of the homeless community for mistreatment.

“Under the city’s laws, it makes no difference whether the charged defendant is homeless, a backpacker on vacation passing through town, or a student who abandons his dorm room to camp out in protest on the lawn of a municipal building. In that respect, the city’s laws parallel those found in countless jurisdictions across the country,” the majority opinion said.

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