Is it ever illegal to sleep in public places?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

According to the trespassing laws shown in the post about abandoned places, remaining in a public building after hours is a form of trespassing.[i] That means that it would be illegal to sleep in City Hall or the public library or another public building after operating hours.

Another way the law can prohibit sleeping in public places is with a local curfew ordinance declaring that certain outdoor spaces are off-limits at particular times. Curfews might apply only to juveniles or else to geographic locations such as entire parks or sections of them, neighborhoods, or whole cities.

A third way of illegalizing sleeping in public is with laws specially written just for the purpose of preventing that activity.[ii]

Curfew laws have been contested enough over the years that cities now write them to avoid compromising Constitutional rights to assembly and travel.[iii] Some courts find that curfews are perfectly legitimate as long as they include exceptions for actions like traveling from a job or participation in something of benefit to society.

Other courts find at least the age-based curfews to be un-Constitutional or unnecessary. These courts tend to note that since existing criminal laws are available for punishing crimes, imposing a curfew to reduce crime causes non-criminals to be punished for doing nothing wrong. Courts have also pointed out that when the police take time to arrest and process people for curfew violations, they are not on the street pursuing and arresting with deviant criminals.[iv]

Laws specifically against sleeping or resting outside, the third way of making it illegal to sleep in public, are also known as “anti-homelessness” laws.

An example of one of these laws that was found to be constitutional was a Seattle, Washington ordinance against sitting on sidewalks during business hours. Two homeless advocates, one of whom was formerly homeless, sat on the sidewalk just so that they could get arrested and argue against the ordinance in court. They claimed that the ordinance violated due process because it was overbroad and limited their basic right to move around or be still. The court determined that the law did not invade that right because it only applied during business hours. In other words, since it only applied during the hours when the City needed to support business and reduce crime, the ordinance was rationally related to those legitimate government purposes.[v] 

An example of a blatant anti-homeless sleeping law found not to be constitutional is a Los Angeles ordinance that was only recently modified. It prohibited sitting, lying or sleeping on the city’s streets or sidewalks at any time of day.  San Francisco’[vi] In 2006, a group of six homeless men successfully sued the city for “cruel and unusual punishment” because of that law. One of the significant facts in the case was that the city did not have enough shelter spaces to house all of the homeless.  Five years later, San Francisco began enforcing its “sit-lie” ordinance. [vii]

Since cruel and unusual punishment is presented in the U.S. Constitution as a description of how the government cannot treat criminal defendants, the court required proof that the homeless who couldn’t get into shelters truly were being arrested for nothing more than their presence on the sidewalk or street. As a result of this case, the police in Los Angeles agreed not to charge the homeless under this ordinance unless they were also engaged in crimes such as theft, drug use, or other illegal acts beyond merely being outside.[viii]

When looking at all of these different ways the laws prevent people from sleeping in public you might wonder how anyone would even know when and where sleeping isn’t allowed. It is probably easiest to avoid trespassing or violating a curfew because there are usually printed warnings telling when people can’t be in a place. There might be a sign telling when the library is open; anyone there at other times knows that he shouldn’t be there. There might be curfew notices posted in a park or other outdoor spaces. But the anti-sitting, camping, or sleeping ordinances do not usually come with any advance notice to first-time violators.

There is no requirement that people have to know about laws before getting charged for violating them.  It is required, however, that federal, state, and local laws comply with the rights established U.S. Constitution such as due process,[ix] freedom from illegal searches and seizures,[x] free speech[xi]… No matter which constitutional right is claimed, the law’s effect will be compared to its purpose. As long as laws about sleeping in public are written to serve a legitimate government purpose and are rationally related to that purpose,[xii] they will be found constitutionally acceptable. When reading the full case decisions that were summarized above, pay attention to how the court talks about purpose to see how to make arguments in your own case.


[i] Model Penal Code § 221.2(1) (1962), says that “surreptitiously remaining” on property is trespassing.

[ii] “A Dream Denied: Criminalization of Homelessness” and “Illegal to be Homeless” are some of the titles used by the National Coalition for the Homeless in their annual summaries of laws and local government actions against homeless people, available at http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/reports.html. These reports have numerous examples of laws enacted to prevent the homeless from sleeping in particular public places and they tell how homeless advocates have responded to the laws.

[iii] Freedom to assemble is in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. U.S. Const. amend. I. The right to move about freely, which cases often refer to as “travel”, has been interpreted from the Fourteenth Amendment. U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

[iv] Curfew cases are often not major enough to be appealed and published in case reporters. Since the ACLU frequently disputes curfews, a good place to read about them is on the ACLU’s Web site http://www.aclu.org/. There you will find news stories about curfew cases and samples of documents filed in cases contesting actual curfew laws.

[v] City of Seattle v. McConahy, 937 P.2d 1133 (Wash. Ct. App. 1997).

[vi] L.A., Cal., Mun. Code § 41.18(d) (2005).

[vii] Jones v. Los Angeles, 444 F.3d. 1118 (9th Cir. 2006). The prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment is the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted.” U.S. Const. amend. VIII.  The San Francisco ordinance against sitting and lying on sidewalks between 7:00a.m. and 11:00p.m. is Section 168 in the “Disorderly Conduct” part of the Police Code.

[viii] Henry Weinstein & Cara Mia DiMassa, Justices Hand LA’s Homeless a Victory, L.A. Times, Apr. 15, 2006, at A1. article link

[ix] U.S. Const. amend. XIV.

[x] U.S. Const. amend IV.

[xi] U.S. Const. Amend. I.

[xii] Comparing the government’s purpose against the way it has written a law to see if there is a rational relationship between them is called “rational basis scrutiny” and is explained in legal encyclopedias such as American Jurisprudence and Corpus Juris Secundum and in books about constitutional law which are generally in the KF 4550 call number range at libraries.

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 47 other followers

%d bloggers like this: