The purpose of this update is to inform you of a significant recent ruling by the United States Supreme Court that impacts municipal regulation of homeless encampments. In City of Grants Pass v Johnson, decided on June 28, 2024, the Supreme Court provided important clarifications regarding the application of the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause to municipal laws regulating camping on public property.

Case Background and Decision

The City of Grants Pass, Oregon, enacted ordinances prohibiting camping and sleeping in public spaces. These laws were challenged on the grounds that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The district court, followed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled against the City, citing the precedent established by the Ninth Circuit in Martin v. Boise. That decision had prevented cities from enforcing public-camping ordinances against homeless individuals if the number of homeless individuals exceeded the available shelter beds.

The Supreme Court reversed the district court and Ninth Circuit decisions, holding that:

  1. Eighth Amendment Focus: The Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause is directed at the types of punishment a government may impose following a criminal conviction and does not limit what behaviors a government may criminalize or how those laws may be enforced.
  2. Nature of Punishments: The penalties imposed by Grants Pass (fines and potential jail time for repeat offenses) do not qualify as cruel and unusual because they are not intended to add terror, pain, or disgrace and are consistent with traditional punishments for similar offenses nationwide.
  3. Distinction Between Status and Conduct: The Court reaffirmed that while the Eighth Amendment prohibits criminalizing a person’s status (e.g., being homeless), it does not prevent laws that prohibit specific conduct (e.g., camping in public spaces).

Implications for Municipalities

This ruling provides municipalities with greater clarity and authority in regulating public spaces and addressing homelessness. Key takeaways include:

  • Municipalities can enforce ordinances that prohibit camping and sleeping in public spaces without violating the Eighth Amendment, as long as these laws target conduct rather than status.
  • The decision rejects the Ninth Circuit’s expansive interpretation in Martin v. Boise, which had constrained local governments’ ability to manage homelessness.
  • Local governments retain the flexibility to use public-camping regulations as part of broader strategies to address homelessness, ensuring public health and safety.

Practical Steps for Municipalities

In light of this decision, municipalities should:

  1. Review Existing Ordinances: Ensure that local laws regulating camping and sleeping in public spaces are clearly focused on conduct rather than status.
  2. Document Enforcement Practices: Maintain records demonstrating that enforcement is applied uniformly and fairly, with an emphasis on offering assistance and alternatives to those experiencing homelessness.
  3. Coordinate with Social Services: Continue to work with social service providers to increase the availability of shelter beds and support services, ensuring that enforcement is coupled with efforts to assist those in need.


The Supreme Court’s ruling in City of Grants Pass v Johnson reaffirms the authority of municipalities to regulate public spaces and manage the complex issue of homelessness within constitutional bounds. We encourage you to review your local ordinances and enforcement practices in light of this decision.

Disclaimer: This legal update is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult with legal counsel for specific guidance applicable to your municipality.”

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