Justice Sotomayor Blasts 'Unconscionable' SCOTUS Ruling Overturning Homeless Rights

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor gave a blistering dissent of Friday’s ruling that will give local governments the ability to punish homeless people for sleeping outside.

“The only question for the Court today is whether the Constitution permits punishing homeless people with no access to shelter for sleeping in public with as little as a blanket to keep warm,” Sotomayor said in her dissent.

In a 6-3 decision, the conservative-majority court overturned two decisions from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals granting protections to homeless people from punishment for sleeping outdoors.

The decision, Grants Pass v. Johnson, will make it easier for states and cities to ban homeless people from sleeping outside while punishing them with civil fines and even jail time. In the ruling, authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court concluded that “generally applicable” laws like those against camping could not qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment.”

In her dissent, Sotomayor called the new ruling “unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

“Sleep is a biological necessity, not a crime,” Sotomayor said. “For some people, sleeping outside is their only option. The City of Grants Pass jails and fines those people for sleeping anywhere in public at any time, including in their cars, if they use as little as a blanket to keep warm or a rolled-up shirt as a pillow. For people with no access to shelter, that punishes them for being homeless. That is unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

Sotomayor also pointed out that punishing homeless people for sleeping outside with fines and jail time often doesn’t have the intended effect of deterrence.

In one example, Sotomayor cited a case out of Nashville in which a man experiencing homelessness for 20 years was arrested 198 times and had over 250 citations.

“When an outreach worker tried to help him secure housing, the worker had difficulty finding him for his appointments because he was frequently arrested for being homeless,” Sotomayor said.

Because of his numerous arrests for sleeping outside, the man’s case worker eventually made him a T-shirt that read “Please do not arrest me, my outreach worker is working on my housing.” Once he’d finally secured housing, the man “had no further encounters with the police, no citations, and no arrests,” Sotomayer said.

In a hearing on the case in April, Sotomayor didn’t mince words about what a lack of compassion for people experiencing homelessness might ultimately lead to.

“Where do we put them if every city, every village, every town lacks compassion and passes a law identical to this, where are they supposed to sleep?” she asked. “Are they supposed to kill themselves not sleeping?”