Do you have a right to sleep in public?

**** 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. ****

Public safety is one of the paramount obligations of city governments. Police and fire assistance, garbage pick-up, sewer authority, street repair, and numerous other city services function to assure safety.[i] People who walk public streets, ride public transportation, patronize public buildings, and sleep in public places are all legally entitled to public safety.

As was described in the blog post about having sleep disrupted while staying as a guest in someone else’s place, both criminal laws and civil laws punish people whose actions aggravate, annoy, or attack another person. The criminal law system punishes with fines payable to the state, probation, community service, and jail time-depending on the crime. The civil law system punishes people by making them pay money to their victims. See the posts about dealing with police and the courts for more information about making these different kinds of court cases.

In both criminal and civil law, actions like annoyance and aggravation constitute harassment. Physical attacks are classified in the category of assault crimes. In any state the assault category might include such divisions as simple assault, assault and battery, assault with a deadly weapon, or sexual assault.

Sometimes homeless victims don’t access the criminal system after attacks because they don’t expect help. A victim’s location does not affect the right to have an attacker charged with harassment or assault. It also does not alter the potency of those charges. In other words, the police cannot say, “well too bad he got attacked; he was asking for it by sleeping outside.” Police do not make those kinds of location-based judgments about domestic violence victims who remain at home with someone violent or about road rage victims who continue driving when someone else on the road is being aggressive; they cannot make them about homeless people.

Even the attacker’s defense attorney usually cannot use the victim’s homelessness as some sort of excuse for the attack. To imply that because someone is homeless he might be mentally ill, or asking for trouble, or somehow morally inferior would be an illegal use of victim character evidence in the criminal trial against the attacker. The Federal Rules of Evidence, which apply in federal court cases and which serve as a model for state evidence rules, rarely allow a victim’s character to be invoked in a case.[ii] If a lawyer did try to use those kinds of claims against a homeless victim, or even a homeless attacker[iii] or witness,[iv] the judge would forbid them from being presented.

When there is a pattern of crime in an area populated by homeless folks, there are several ways to reduce the likelihood of being victimized:
1. Stay away from that area
2. Get the police to regularly patrol the area
3. Establish an internal patrol system by which you and the others who stay there take turns keeping watch
4. Have a threat response system, a plan for how you’ll react to help yourself or someone else and
5. Enlist homeless advocacy organizations to help draw public and government attention to an outbreak of crimes against the homeless.

Even if no methods of self-protection are implemented, continuing to stay in a vulnerable place would not reduce a homeless person’s ability to have an attacker arrested and prosecuted. The Police Officers’ Code of Ethics assures that, “the fundamental duties of a police officer include serving the community; safeguarding lives and property; protecting the innocent; keeping the peace; and ensuring the rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”[v] If police officers do not respond to distress calls or do not help to protect victims by investigating crimes and arresting attackers, then the victims and the public need to file ethics complaints with the police department. See the post asking “What if the police are rough with you” for information about reporting and fighting police misconduct.


[i] 2 McQuillin on Municipal Corporations §9.05 (1988).

[ii] Fed. R. Evid. 404 says, “Evidence of a person’s character or a trait of character is not admissible…except: (2) …a character trait of peacefulness of the victim offered by the prosecution in a homicide case to rebut evidence that the victim was the first aggressor.” Rule 412 tells about the limited circumstances when the sexual history of a sex crime victim can be used as evidence in the case against the attacker. The Federal Rules of Evidence are available for free in several places on the Internet including the Cornell Legal Information Institute http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/fre/. State evidence rules are available within each state’s listings on another part of the Cornell site http://www.law.cornell.edu/states/listing.html.

[iii] Fed. R. Evid. 404, 405, 406.

[iv] Fed. R. Evid. 404, 608, 609.

[v] International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, “Primary Duties of a Police Officer,” available at http://www.theiacp.org/documents/index.cfm?fuseaction=document&document_id=94 See also the next section of that code about “Performance of the Duties of a Police Officer” which says, “A police officer shall perform all duties impartially, without favor or affection or ill will and without regard to status, sex, race, religion, political belief or aspiration. All citizens will be treated equally with courtesy, consideration and dignity.” See http://www.theiacp.org/.  Individual police departments have their own codes of ethics with similar promises of quality service.

Advertisements

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

%d bloggers like this: