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Missouri Supreme Court weighs if a law banning sleeping on public land is constitutional

Houseless people living in the encampment on the south side of City Hall in Kansas City moved into temporary housing or left the grounds altogether in April.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Houseless people living in the encampment on the south side of City Hall in Kansas City moved into temporary housing or left the grounds altogether in April.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments over the constitutionality of a wide-ranging law passed by the legislature last year banning sleeping on public land.

Missouri lawmakers made sleeping on state-owned land a Class C misdemeanor, along with a slew of other provisions such as restricting state funding for permanent supportive housing in favor of temporary treatments.

The legislation was passed as an amendment in a broader bill just before the end of the 2022 session.

The case heard Wednesday centers on whether the way the law was passed — as an amendment in a bill pertaining to “political subdivisions” — violates constitutional requirements that legislation have a single subject, clear title and adhere to its original purpose. Those requirements were designed in part to support transparency and discourage legislative maneuvering to tack amendments that wouldn’t pass as stand-alone bills onto popular bills in order to pass.

Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, along with Public Citizen Litigation Group and a Springfield homeless shelter, filed a lawsuit last year against the state, arguing the homelessness provisions do not fit within the bill’s overarching subject of “relating to political subdivisions.”

In March, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Cotton Walker ruled in favor of the state, and the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court.

“Many of its provisions do not concern political subdivisions, and the section as a whole does not clearly relate to political subdivisions,” Adina Rosenbaum, an attorney for Public Citizen Litigation Group, argued Wednesday.

One judge asked why it wouldn’t be sufficient to have some provisions related to political subdivisions. Rosenbaum said only a few provisions are, and that the scope of the legislation is much broader. It “regulates individuals, it regulates nonprofits, regulates private campgrounds,” she said, “so it goes far beyond the political subdivisions.”

“No one looking at the title of this bill would think, for example, that it criminalized individual behavior,” Rosenbaum said.

The state, represented by Assistant Attorney General Clayton Weems, argued political subdivisions “clearly relate to and have a natural connection to the overarching thrust of the bill.”

“As the circuit court correctly found, empowering political subdivisions to address the local problem is…germane and relevant to the concept of political subdivisions as a whole,” Weems said.

“In this particular case, the involvement of political subdivisions is a necessary prerequisite at every juncture at every step,” Weems said.

Ben Stringer, another attorney arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, disputed the argument that being related to a political subdivision was enough.

“The critique of this bill is not that it doesn’t address political subdivisions, the critique is that it addresses political subdivisions and a slew of other matters that are outside the political subdivision itself,” Stringer said.

“The state has tried to argue that this criminalization of homelessness relates to political subdivisions because political subdivisions become the enforcer of this provision,” Stringer said — arguing if that were true, it would open the floodgates to, for instance, rewriting “the entire criminal code under the auspice of relating to political subdivisions.”

Judge Patricia Breckenridge asked Weems what the standard is.

“The overriding purpose to regulate the political subdivision might be a stretch,” Breckenridge said.

In one of the briefs filed in support of the litigation, an attorney for ArchCity Defenders and a DC-based law firm refer to the law as “legislation of staggering importance, pushed by non-Missouri interests, passed without adequate debate and public scrutiny,” which leads to “criminalization of the most vulnerable Missourians.”

The legislation, modeled off a template created by the conservative think tank Cicero Institute, aims to combine a camping ban with temporary supports to reduce the prevalence of encampments they characterize as violent, and encourage self-sufficiency for those living there. Many advocates oppose the law, arguing it criminalizes being unsheltered while removing housing-first strategies that help combat homelessness.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.
Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Clara Bates