While not supporting a reversal of the ruling, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an amended motion on Tuesday that will see the county’s counsel write an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court regarding enforcement measures on homeless encampments.
The motion, co-authored by Supervisors Kathryn Barger, 5th District, and Janice Hahn, 4th District, was amended by Supervisor Holly Mitchell, 2nd District, to narrow the scope of the amicus brief. Barger represents the Santa Clarita Valley.
Supervisors Hilda Solis, 1st District, and Lindsey Horvath, 3rd District, voted against the motion.
It was originally in support of the city of Grants Pass in the case of Johnson v. City of Grants Pass, held in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco. The ruling from 2022 stated that homeless people living in encampments on public property cannot be punished with “civil fines, an exclusion order, and eventual criminal prosecution for trespass,” and any actions against homeless people who have “no other option but to sleep outside or in their vehicles” would go against the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.
The Johnson case came after another Ninth Circuit ruling in 2018 in Martin v. City of Boise 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.”
Mitchell’s amendment to the motion removed support for Grants Pass and instead asks the Supreme Court to clarify how the Martin ruling can be applied when it comes to personal belongings in public right-of-way areas and remove the prohibition on removing those items.
The original motion did not ask for the brief to uphold “the prohibitions on both criminal penalties and civil penalties that can escalate to criminal penalties.”
The city of Grants Pass filed a petition in August with the United States Supreme Court seeking to overturn that ruling. The Supreme Court agreed on Jan. 12 to review the case after multiple cities, counties and other organizations filed amicus briefs — court submissions by people, organizations or agencies that are not party to a case that offer additional information or arguments — including California Gov. Gavin Newsom on behalf of the state.
In total, 25 amicus briefs were submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the city of Grants Pass.
In her defense of the motion, Mitchell noted how the county’s Pathway Home initiative, launched last August, does not work as currently constructed with the barrier of the Johnson ruling.
“As the county is working to scale up Pathway Home and as more cities see the positive impact of increasing housing options, like turning motels into permanent homes,” Mitchell said, “we also need to have the appropriate tools for safe passages in public spaces for everyone.”
Mitchell added that the county, and the cities within, should be able to have clean streets, something that is not always possible with the increasing abundance of homeless encampments. But, she and the other supervisors said they were against criminalizing homelessness, with the three voting for the motion saying that the ability to police the streets is paramount to serving the homeless population.
“We really wanted to do all that we could to create a delicate balance,” Mitchell said, “that we didn’t want to just give county counsel carte blanche to join the amicus brief, but to narrowly focus areas that we wanted further clarification on and not compromise our current ability to have an effective RV encampment removal program, have an effective Pathway Homes program and do all that we can to create safe, healthy streets for our unhoused as well as our housed residents.”
In her support of the motion that she co-authored, Barger said that the advocates who helped change the scope of it were “heard loud and clear.”
“I totally support the amendment because the goal is not to criminalize … It’s about compassion and working toward getting people housed,” Barger said. “And when I saw the governor say, when he was talking about why they filed the amicus, it was because he felt that this was an impediment to the ability for them to get people housed. I believe that with these amendments, it addresses some of the concerns that the advocates have.”
Standing in opposition, Horvath used the ongoing storms surging throughout Southern California to show how the county could be seen as against helping homeless people should it file an amicus brief on the matter.
“When I think about the conditions that we’ve just been experiencing in L.A., could you imagine if you were getting fined for trying to protect yourself from the rain with a piece of cardboard or trying to keep yourself warm with a blanket?” Horvath said. “That’s some of what is behind this court decision, and I am clear that’s not what my colleagues have said. But this court decision is really about these elements.”
Horvath added that cities and other local governments do have the power to enforce policies despite the Johnson and Martin rulings, which, if reversed, could “further expand and empower such policies in ways that put vulnerable people even further at risk.”
Solis, who said she was against filing an amicus brief in 2018 when the Martin case was first brought up, agreed with Horvath on that point. She touted the Pathway Home initiative, saying that “the county has humanely resolved 10 encampments, moved 443 individuals into interim housing, removed 144 recreational vehicles and permanently housed 25 individuals.”
Noting that both Horvath and Solis made valid arguments, Barger stuck to her original point that adding the county’s voice would only benefit how it is able to combat homelessness.
“This is going to be heard with or without our amicus being included,” Barger said. “And I would argue that if in fact we’re concerned about the criminalization, that by including this and highlighting our request, we are adding something to the discussion to ensure just what you are concerned might happen.”
A large number of people spoke on the matter during the public comments session, with a seemingly even split of those for and against approval.