Back to All Commentary

Op-Ed: Saratoga Should Rescind Sidewalk Law (The Saratogian)

Statue of Liberty

by Melanie Trimble

Saratoga Springs’ June ordinance against sitting or lying on public sidewalks is part of an ugly national trend. Similar anti-homeless laws have passed in scores of American cities as far flung as Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and Boise. Such laws are band-aids enacted by municipalities that have failed to address the real problems of homelessness and inequality in their midst. Instead of strategically and effectively tackling homelessness, Saratoga’s ordinance essentially punishes the homeless. The very idea of levying fines against people who are already impoverished defies common sense—and it is also unconstitutional.

In 1962, the Supreme Court recognized that to criminalize a person’s status or condition, as opposed to one’s conduct, violates their rights. As a result, courts have taken a dim view of statutes that criminalize normal human behavior, such as resting or sleeping. Take, for example, the 2006 case Jones v. City of Los Angeles. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that people can’t simply be punished for doing innocent things in public when they have no alternative. “Sitting, lying, and sleeping … are universal and unavoidable consequences of being human,” the court said. For homeless individuals “who have no access to private spaces, these acts can only be done in public.” Arresting homeless people for sitting, lying or sleeping is tantamount to “criminalizing [their] status as homeless individuals.” To make matters worse, ordinances like Saratoga’s only complicate the already complex problem of homelessness. The Department of Justice has cautioned that, “issuing citations for public sleeping forces individuals into the criminal justice system and creates additional obstacles to overcoming homelessness.”

In the face of public concern, and notice that the New York Civil Liberties Union is monitoring the situation, Saratoga officials claim that the ordinance is misunderstood. Responding to recent critical media coverage, the Board of Commissioners is reportedly seeking to amend the ordinance. Whatever the legalistic tweaks, it’s no secret who this law targets. As long as sitting or lying on the sidewalk remains broadly criminalized, the Board cannot sugarcoat the targeting of Saratoga’s homeless population. Rather than rely on legal band-aids for complex problems, the city should rescind this unnecessary ordinance.

Melanie Trimble is director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Capital Region Chapter.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union