Johnson v. Grants Pass: A breakdown of the case before the Supreme Court and what it could mean for people experiencing homelessness

Monday, May 13, 2024
A photo of the US Supreme Court Building
Johnson v. Grants Pass is a landmark Supreme Court case that holds immense significance for the rights of people experiencing homelessness across the United States. Let’s explore why this case matters, discuss the work the ACLU of Washington is engaged in, and answer some of the most important questions.

Q: What is the Grants Pass case about?

A: Johnson v. Grants Pass is a 2018 court case that determined it is cruel and unusual punishment to arrest or ticket people for sleeping outside with rudimentary forms of protection from the elements, when they have no other safe place to go. The case started in Grants Pass, Ore., when the city began issuing tickets to people sleeping in public with minimal protection, like blankets, even when there were not enough safe, accessible shelter beds.

Q: Why is this case before the United States Supreme Court?

A: After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the unhoused plaintiffs and found that the city’s ordinance was unconstitutional, Grants Pass appealed that court’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether penalizing people experiencing homelessness constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Q: Why is this case so important?

A: Johnson v. Grants Pass is the most significant Supreme Court case about homelessness in four decades. Its outcome will shape whether the U.S. remains a country that punishes people for experiencing homelessness or takes a more compassionate approach.

Q: How does this case connect to Martin v. Boise?

A: Martin v. Boise served as the foundation for Grants Pass. In Martin, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that states may not criminalize conduct that is an “unavoidable consequence of being homeless,” specifically, sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets, when there are not enough shelter beds available. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to this case and since then, Martin has prohibited localities in the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction from enforcing anti-camping laws if they lack available shelter. Despite this ruling, many cities continue to force displacement of unhoused individuals sleeping on public property. The 9th Circuit includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Q: How would Grants Pass impact cities’ policies on homelessness?

A: This case will significantly impact local and statewide policies regardless of the outcome. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the unhoused plaintiffs, it will set a legal precedent nationwide that punishing people for being unhoused is unconstitutional. This ruling would expand on the rights that Martin established, which limited the ability of cities to prosecute unhoused people for sleeping outside when there is no available shelter and would instead bar cities from criminalizing behavior that is inextricably linked to the status of being unhoused, such as sleeping outside. A ruling in favor of the unhoused plaintiffs would encourage all cities to align their policies with constitutional principles, to ensure that they do not violate fundamental rights. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the Grants Pass, protections for people experiencing homelessness would be rolled back significantly. Cities would be able to legally punish people for actions like sleeping outside even if they have nowhere else to go and we expect that decision to have far-reaching consequences nationwide.

Q: What work is ACLU-WA engaged in regarding the criminalization of homelessness?

A: It is important to note that our state constitution is more protective than our federal constitution. For example, both constitutions have provisions protecting you from excessive punishment. The federal Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, and our state constitution prohibits cruel punishment. Without the requirement that the punishment also be unusual, our state constitution offers greater protections than the federal one. Given that important distinction, we at the ACLU of Washington believe the prohibition on punishment for houselessness in Martin v. Boise is guaranteed under Washington’s state constitution. ACLU of Washington has pursued and is continuing to investigate and build legal cases that involve Washington’s constitutional protections to protect people experiencing homelessness from being punished for sleeping outside. Additionally, we continue to challenge efforts and policies across the state that seek to criminalize unhoused people.

Q: Does ACLU-WA have any active cases related to the criminalization of homelessness?

A: Yes! We currently have ongoing litigation against the City of Seattle in our case, Kitcheon v. City of Seattle.

Q: What is Kitcheon v. City of Seattle about?

A: Kitcheon is a 2019 case we, along with co-counsel, filed on behalf of unhoused plaintiffs and a taxpayer challenging the constitutionality of the city’s policies and practices of sweeping unhoused people and their encampments. Our case includes claims under Article 1, Section 7 of the state constitution, which protects the right to privacy in one’s home, and Article 1, Section 14, which prohibits cruel punishment. We have argued that the city's sweeps policy permits the unconstitutional invasions of unhoused Seattle residents' privacy rights without notice, without presenting them with alternative shelter, and without giving them opportunity to protect their property and shelters.

Q: What is the status of Kitcheon?

A: Last year, we won summary judgment in the case, a legal term referring to a judgment entered by a court without a full trial. The King County Superior Court ruled, in part, that the rules underlying Seattle’s sweeps policy permit unconstitutional invasions of unhoused Seattle residents’ privacy rights, in violation of Article 1, Section 7, and that the city’s sweeps policy subjects the unhoused to cruel punishment in some circumstances under Article 1, Section 14. This ruling followed the existing body of law, including Martin v. Boise. The city has appealed that ruling.

Q: How can I stay up to date with ACLU-WA’s work?

A: If you would like to stay informed about current issues and campaigns, upcoming events, and how you can get more involved in the fight to protect and expand civil liberties, sign up for our Action Alert email list. If you’d like to get engaged in our work directly, sign up for our activist mobilization project, Power Up Network.

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