|dc.description.abstract||2020 Supreme Court Celebration Competition problem:
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution does the same. Litigants usually invoke those constitutional provisions to challenge the method of punishment or the severity of punishment. But there is a third type of challenge, which is very rare: a claim that the government is prosecuting someone and imposing punishment for something that these constitutional provisions will not allow it to punish at all.
The seminal case on this is Robinson v. California, where the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a California penal statute that defined a crime in a way that violated the Eighth Amendment: it made it a crime to be addicted to narcotics. The U.S. Supreme Court held that buying narcotics, possessing narcotics, and selling narcotics were all acts, and there's no constitutional problem with criminalizing and punishing conduct. But being an addict is a status, and it would be cruel and unusual punishment to impose any amount of punishment for simply existing (especially when a person may have come by their status as an addict through lawful use of prescription drugs, or simply by being born to a mother suffering from a similar addiction). However, in Powell v. Texas, a fractured court held that it did not violate the Eighth Amendment for Texas to criminalize public intoxication, even as applied to an alcoholic who claimed that he was compelled to get drunk and then had no control over where he went after that. A concurrence by Justice White suggested that, if Powell had been homeless, then this would be a stronger constitutional challenge: for a homeless person, this law would criminalize being drunk, which would threaten to run afoul of Robinson (although it would still be different from criminalizing the status of being an alcoholic, which would clearly be unconstitutional).
Which brings us to Davenport, Iowa, where city ordinances prohibit folks from sleeping or camping in public spaces. Violations are punishable as simple misdemeanor offenses; usually, this means a citation or arrest, and then a small fine and/or a sentence to time served. A group of individuals is challenging those ordinances as unconstitutional, arguing that they violate both the Eighth Amendment and Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. The argument is that, as applied to folks who cannot find shelter, the ordinances criminalize the status of homelessness, just like Robinson criminalized the status of addiction. While there are homeless shelters in the Davenport area, they are often full (and some of them have religious affiliations or other rules that make them unavailable to certain people). The Iowa district court determined that these ordinances were criminalizing conduct, not status, so it granted the City's motion for summary judgment. But the Iowa Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with orders to grant the plaintiff's cross-motion and to enjoin the City from enforcing these ordinances against anyone without their own options for shelter at any moment when there is no available bed space in a local homeless shelter.
The City applied for further review before the Iowa Supreme Court, which granted review. To resolve this case, the Iowa Supreme Court must decide whether it violates the Eighth Amendment to criminalize sleeping or camping in public when a person is homeless. Is this conduct, which a local government can criminalize? Or is this the status of homelessness, which cannot be criminalized? Or is it both status and conduct, somehow intertwined? What then? What does the fractured opinion in Powell v. Texas really stand for? And then, after answering all of those questions by applying federal law that interprets the Eighth Amendment, the Iowa Supreme Court must step back and ask: is all of that analysis equally valid and persuasive in applying Article I, Section 17 of the Iowa Constitution? Is any of it? What other criminal laws in Iowa will become unenforceable if the plaintiffs prevail? What other status-adjacent conduct could be criminalized in Iowa, if the City prevails? And does either result actually help alleviate the pressing problem of homelessness?||