On The Front Lines
Tenn. Bill Criminalizes Homelessness, Puts Citizens at Risk of Jail Time, Police Searches & $3,000 Fine for Sleeping Outside
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A bill passed by the Tennessee legislature to deter homelessness could put all citizens at risk of jail, police searches and a $3,000 fine for sleeping or camping outside in a public place. The bill (HB 978/SB 1610), which was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly and is pending review by Governor Bill Lee, makes it a misdemeanor crime for any person to “camp” under a bridge or overpass of a highway and expands the scope of a current law to make “camping” on public property a felony punishable by up to six years in prison and a $3,000 fine. In providing a legal analysis of the bill’s shortcomings, The Rutherford Institute warns that the General Assembly’s attempt to criminalize homelessness will only worsen the plight of the homeless while criminalizing activities enjoyed by the general populace and threatening their freedoms, and might not withstand constitutional scrutiny.
“This legislation is neither a sound legislative solution to a societal crisis nor a moral, compassionate response to the plight of the ‘least among us,’” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “In light of this bill’s dubious constitutionality, its shortcomings must be resolved and not codified into law.”
The homeless, by far the most vulnerable in any community, have found themselves increasingly displaced and disadvantaged by laws and ordinances—part of a nationwide trend in urban and suburban communities—which criminalize homelessness and even inhibit individuals and organizations which aim to ease the suffering of the homeless. In 2012, Tennessee enacted the Equal Access to Property Act, which criminalized “camping” on state-owned land not designated as a camping area. The Act appears to have been largely unenforced since there were no convictions reported within the past five years. After tensions arose over attempts to re-house some people living under a bridge in Nashville, HB 978 and its companion SB 1610 were introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly to expand the scope and enforcement of the Act to cover all public property and make camping under a bridge or overpass a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a $50 fine and 20 to 40 hours of community service or litter removal. However, a violation of the Act for “camping” on other public property during the night would be a Class E felony punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000. Under the legislation, which is awaiting Governor Lee’s signature, “camping” is broadly and vaguely defined to include activities such as using a piece of furniture, storing personal belongings, cooking, digging or earth breaking, sleeping, and laying down a blanket, and does not require a person to be homeless or have other lodging available to be in violation. As The Rutherford Institute points out in its legal analysis, the legislation not only threatens the homeless, but also other law-abiding citizens, by giving police a basis for conducting arbitrary and pretextual seizures and searches of citizens and their belongings simply because a person lays down a blanket for a picnic or rests and appears to be sleeping in a public place during certain hours. Moreover, Institute attorneys warn that the proposed law may not pass constitutional muster in court, given its similarity to other laws across the country that have been declared unconstitutional for being overbroad and vague in their attempts to punish wholly innocent conduct.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.