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Missouri Supreme Court strikes down law banning sleeping on public land

A man asked to be identified as “JTP” goes through his belongings on Friday, March 10, 2023, at an unhoused encampment along Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A man asked to be identified as “JTP” goes through his belongings in March 2023 at an unhoused encampment along Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard in downtown St. Louis.

A wide-ranging bill passed by the state legislature last year banning sleeping on public land was struck down on Tuesday by the Missouri Supreme Court for violating the constitution’s single subject requirement.

Missouri lawmakers last year madesleeping on state-owned land a Class C misdemeanor and restricted state funds for combating homelessness. The legislation was passed as an amendment in a broader bill relating to political subdivisions just before the end of the 2022 session.

Critics of the bill feared it essentially criminalized homelessness. Supporters characterized it as reducing the prevalence of encampments they deemed dangerous to unhoused people and surrounding communities.

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 did not fit within the bill’s overarching subject of “relating to political subdivisions.”

The case centered 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 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.

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

The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the circuit court’s decision Tuesday, with Judge Paul C. Wilson authoring the opinion.

The homelessness provisions added on to the bill “introduced at least one impermissible additional subject, i.e., homelessness,” Wilson wrote.

The “primary inquiry,” he wrote, is whether all provisions of the bill “fairly relate to, have a natural connection with, or are means to accomplish [the bill’s] subject, i.e., ‘political subdivisions.’”

Even though some of the homelessness provisions regulate state funds that would apply to political subdivisions receiving those funds, Wilson wrote, the provisions also apply to nonprofits and private developers.

Other homelessness-related provisions in the bill, he wrote, don’t relate to political subdivisions at all.

With the homelessness provisions found unconstitutional, the court then weighed whether that required it to strike down the rest of the sprawling bill.

“It takes an extraordinary showing to convince this court to engage in judicial surgery to save a bill infected with the otherwise fatal constitutional disease of multiple subjects” Wilson wrote, “and no effort was made by any party to make such a showing here.”

As a result, the rest of the bill — including provisions related to county financial statements, county coroners’ salaries, and more — were also struck down Tuesday, with the court arguing it was unable to determine whether the bill would’ve passed without the homelessness provisions.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.