Martin v. City of Boise

Martin v. City of Boise, 920 F.3d 584 (9th Cir. 2019)

This case concerns a series of city ordinances that plaintiffs alleged were unconstitutionally targeted at the city’s homeless population:

(1) A Disorderly Conduct ordinance, which made it a criminal offense to occupy, lodge, or sleep in any building structure or place, whether public or private, without permission. Boise City Code § 6-01-05; and
(2) A Camping ordinance, which made it a criminal offense to use any of the streets, sidewalks, parks, or public places as a camping place at any time. Boise City Code § 9-10-02.


Does enforcement of these ordinances violate the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause as applied to homeless individuals with no access to alternative shelter?


Yes, the Ninth Circuit held generally that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the imposition of criminal penalties for sitting, sleeping, or lying outside on public property for homeless individuals who cannot obtain shelter.

More narrowly the Circuit court wanted to make clear that they in no way were dictating that the City must provide sufficient shelter for the homeless, or allow anyone who wishes to sit, lie, or sleep on the streets at any time and at any place. Rather, they held only that, so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in a jurisdiction that exceeds the number of available shelter beds, the jurisdiction cannot prosecute homeless individuals for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in public. The government cannot criminalize homeless individuals on the false premise that they had a choice in the matter of where to sleep.

In addressing the Camping ordinance specifically, the court held that it is unconstitutional to enforce criminal penalties on homeless individuals who are taking even the most rudimentary precautions to protect themselves against the elements when they have no alternative shelter available to them.


The city of Boise Idaho had a population of people experiencing homelessness that far exceeded the amount of available shelter beds within the city’s bounds. Despite this imbalance, the city passed two local ordinances that criminalized sleeping in public or private spaces without permission, and camping in public places in which the term camping was defined very broadly to include even possessing a blanket. Between 2007 and 2009, each plaintiff was convicted at least once of violating the Camping Ordinance, the Disorderly Conduct Ordinance, or both. With one exception, all plaintiffs were sentenced to time served for all convictions.

Procedural History

In October of 2009, the plaintiffs filed this action in the United States District court for the District of Idaho. All plaintiffs alleged that their previous citations under the Camping Ordinance and the Disorderly Conduct Ordinance violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause of the Eighth Amendment and sought damages for those alleged violations under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. Plaintiffs also sought prospective declaratory and injunctive relief precluding future enforcement of the ordinances under the same statute and the Declaratory Judgment act. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the city, reasoning that the plaintiffs lacked standing to pursue relief under the declaratory judgment act, and that there was no “credible threat of future prosecution.” This appeal followed, finding for the plaintiffs on September 4, 2018 (902 F.3d 1031). A petition for rehearing en banc was denied on April 1, 2019, but it included an amended case opinion (920 F.3d 584).

The Appellate Court’s Reasoning

The court began by outlining the scope of the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishments noting that there are three prongs that the amendment concerns itself with. The First prong limits the type of punishments the government may impose, the second concerns the proportionality of the proposed crime to the punishment prescribed, and the third places substantive limits on what the government may criminalize. The third prong the court noted was what was most pertinent to the case at hand. 

The Ninth Circuit cited the U.S. Supreme Court holding in Robinson v. California, 370 U.S. 660 (1962) that  a statute criminalizing addiction to narcotics was unconstitutional. Because addiction was an illness or disease “contracted innocently or involuntarily”, criminalizing one’s status as an addict  was “as an infliction of cruel and unusual punishment.” The Court reasoned that [e]ven one day in prison would be cruel and unusual punishment for the ‘crime’ of having the common cold.”

It also recognized the dissent in Powell v. Texas, 392 U.S. 514, (1968) noting that four justices adopted a position that was consistent with Robinson that “criminal penalties may not be inflicted upon a person for being in a condition he is powerless to change.”

Building on these cases, the Ninth Circuit, held in a 2006 case   that “the Eighth Amendment prohibits the state from punishing an involuntary act or condition if it is the unavoidable consequence of one’s status or being” and that  “whether sitting, lying, and sleeping are defined as acts or conditions, they are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human and homeless.” Jones v. City of Los Angeles, 444 F.3d 1118, 1138 (9th Cir. 2006).

Based on these precedents, the Martin Court found that , just as the state may not criminalize the state of being “homeless in public places,” the state may not “criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.”

Read the full amended opinion in Martin v. City of Bosie.