Legal challenge to Rochester homeless camp ban off the table

Last year three individuals died in homeless camps in Rochester. Police cleared out more than 100 such camps, while city workers regularly cleaned up dirty needles, feces and trash left behind in some of Rochester’s most popular parks. Something needed to give.

Yet Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services lawyers warned Rochester city officials that passing an ordinance banning homeless encampments in public parks and spaces would likely trigger a lawsuit. The non-profit law firm went so far as to share a draft of a potential lawsuit when the Rochester City Council began considering a ban over the winter.

Rochester city councilors moved ahead with the ban anyway in March, designating camping on public property a misdemeanor with up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days in jail. Now, months later, the Post Bulletin found the SMRLS threat of litigation has finally been taken off the table, following a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing Grants Pass, Oregon and other local governments more latitude in responding to homeless populations.

With the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to support the Grants Pass ordinance, [SMRLS lawyer Brian] Lipford said the local lawsuit isn’t expected to be filed.

“In my opinion, the Grants Pass decision means that there is no path forward for a legal challenge to the Rochester ordinance,” he said. “The Rochester ordinance’s language is almost identical to the language to the Grants Pass ordinance that was determined to be constitutional.

“While I personally disagree with the decision, it is now the law of the land.”

The high court struck down a local ordinance similar to the one implemented in Rochester. In practice, police officers say they rely on the ordinance as a last resort as leverage to gain cooperation. Their primary objective is to direct homeless individuals and families to shelters and social service agencies for help.

While no citations or arrests have been made related to the new restrictions, City Attorney Michael Spindler-Krage said the new ordinance has provided the Rochester Police Department with a way to encourage people to avoid camping in noticeable areas.

“Overall they are seeing fewer, smaller, and less problematic encampments,” he said.

So far, so good, as Rochester police and city staff use the flexibility assured by the court to develop a local strategy that works to protect the public safety, while pointing individuals in need to shelters and other services.