A federal appeals court panel ruled on Friday that arresting homeless people for sleeping, sitting or lying on sidewalks and other public property when other shelter is not available was cruel and unusual punishment.
The 2-1 ruling, by the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, essentially invalidated a 37-year-old Los Angeles ordinance that the police have used to clear homeless people off the streets.
Legal experts said the case, which they believed to be the first involving the rights of homeless people in public spaces to reach the federal appellate level, would be closely followed by other cities facing the same problems.
The Los Angeles ordinance had gone largely unenforced until recent years, when the police began cracking down on illicit behavior in the Skid Row area of downtown, which has one of the largest concentrations of homeless people in the country.
The ordinance states that "no person shall sit, lie or sleep in or upon any street, sidewalk or public way" under threat of a US$1,000 fine and possible jail term of up to six months.
The court of appeals, in striking down the convictions of six people charged under the ordinance, called it "one of the most restrictive municipal laws regulating public spaces in the United States" and cited the example of other cities, such as Portland, Oregon, Tucson, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, that have enacted similar ordinances but limited enforcement to certain times of day or designated places.
The Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishment, prohibits Los Angeles "from punishing involuntary sitting, lying, or sleeping on public sidewalks that is an unavoidable consequence of being human and homeless without shelter," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote.
The Los Angeles police, in response to the ruling, released a statement that said: "The condition of being homeless in and of itself is not a crime and should not be treated as such. But the criminal element that preys upon the homeless and mentally ill will be targeted, arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
It added, "The department will continue to work with the city's political leadership and the courts to find solutions to help keep the homeless safe and off the streets."
A spokeswoman for the city attorney's office, Contessa Mankiewicz, said, "We are disappointed, and we are reviewing our options."
If the city chooses to appeal, it could seek a review of the decision by the full court or pursue a direct appeal to the Supreme Court.
The police in Los Angeles, which has been wrestling with how to reduce a homeless population that by some counts is the largest in the country, have used the ordinance in an effort to clean up Skid Row, a 50-block area east of downtown that has long been home to the down and out.
There, some 10,000 to 12,000 homeless people live near new condominiums and apartment buildings that have arisen in an explosion of gentrification.
The ruling said there was shelter for 9,000 to 10,000 homeless people in that area, leaving about 1,000 people or more without a roof over their heads.
"So long as there are a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds, the city may not enforce" the ordinance, the judges said.
The case was filed in February 2003 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of six homeless people who had been ticketed in Skid Row and in some cases jailed briefly or ordered to pay fines.
The appeals court's ruling on Friday overturns a district court ruling in favor of the city.
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