Spokane attorney says proposed camping ordinance is problematic


Mayor Nadine Woodward says the city needs to do more to prevent people from camping on sidewalks, under bridges, and in city parks.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A Spokane criminal defense attorney fears the City of Spokane could end up in a tangled mess of court cases if an ordinance prohibiting camping on most sidewalks in downtown Spokane is approved by the city council

In 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals determined it was unconstitutional for cities to arrest or cite people for sitting, lying, or camping in public areas when municipalities don’t have enough shelter beds available. 

The ruling stemmed from the 2009 case of Martin v. Boise. Six homeless people sued the city of Boise after they were cited, and, some of them jailed, for sleeping on public property when they had nowhere else to go. 

The ruling set a precedent for nine western states, including Washington. 

“It greatly limited the ability of police to arrest somebody for sit/lie on the street violations, camping on the street violations, it really tied their hands to clearing the streets, as they would view it,” said attorney Steve Graham. 

He watched Mayor Woodward’s press conference where she laid out a proposed ordinance that would prohibit camping at all times:

  • In and within 100 feet of downtown railroad viaducts
  • In all City parks and on City-owned park property
  • Within 35 feet of the Spokane River and Latah Creek
  • Within the downtown police precinct and Business Improvement District boundaries
  • Within a half-mile of City-supported congregate shelter

The ordinance would continue the sitting and lying prohibition in defined spaces between 6 am and midnight.

“We know from feedback that people are nearly unanimous in their desire for something to be done about public camping,” Woodward said. 

Graham thinks the ordinance is problematic. 

“It depends on how it’s enforced by the police on the street, but it’s certainly going to raise a lot of questions and dump a lot of new cases in our municipal courts, that’s for sure.”

The Martin v. Boise decision left cities questioning whether they can legally prohibit camping in certain areas, as opposed to all public spaces. The Mayor’s office is confident the proposed ordinance is within the boundaries of the 9th Circuit ruling. 

Graham believes the proposed ordinance is too broad.

“It’s a very muddied area of the law, it’s going to be a mess for the courts to try and work on this, resolve it, I would just encourage the city to be cautious about this.”


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