Criminalizing Kindness

Springfield Votes to Punish Good Samaritans, Homeless People

by Kelly Simon, Legal Fellow
person on the side of the road with signApril 19, 2016 - Cities in Oregon and across the nation are struggling with how best to address their growing homeless populations. Housing first? More social services? Unfortunately, cities often end up choosing what they incorrectly perceive to be most cost efficient: More policing.

The proliferation of low-level criminal offenses created to “regulate” homelessness has taken various forms—anti-panhandling violations, anti-camping offenses, exclusion zones coupled with trespass laws, and disorderly conduct laws. Now we are seeing a new group targeted with these type of offenses—Good Samaritans.

Frequently, the constitutional rights of homeless people are violated when these type of offenses are enforced. Courts have consistently ruled that anti-panhandling laws violate the First Amendment rights of people soliciting donations on the streets. And, recently, the United States Department of Justice filed a brief in an Idaho case addressing the criminalization of homelessness through anti-camping laws and ordinances that forbid people from sitting or lying down on the sidewalk or on park benches. The DOJ’s brief argued that these types of laws are unconstitutionally cruel and unusual when applied to homeless persons in places with inadequate shelter space available. 

So perhaps the City of Springfield thought they could cleverly circumvent the Constitution when they voted 4-1 to criminalize Good Samaritans instead of homeless people. With its newly passed “unlawful transfer” ordinance, Springfield makes it a crime to pass any object from a vehicle to a pedestrian if the car is not “lawfully parked.” In addition to criminalizing handing money or food to a homeless person through a car window, many additional innocent scenarios are now criminal violations under this new ordinance. You also cannot, for example:

  • Pull up next to your daughter’s soccer field and hand her the shin guards she forgot.

  • Slow to a stop to purchase a glass of lemonade this summer from your kid neighbor’s lemonade stand.

  • Grab a package from a delivery truck if you happen to be standing outside when it arrives.

While cities in other states are successfully implementing compassionate and innovative ideas to tackle homelessness, Springfield and other Oregon cities (Roseburg, Coos Bay, and Medford, for example) are instead reaching for a new low. 

As it turns out, these backwards and unconstitutional “solutions” to homelessness in Oregon have been promoted by none other than the League of Oregon Cities, a group that says their goal is to help local governments “better serve the citizens of Oregon.” At its 2015 Annual Conference, in a session entitled “Meeting the Challenge of Homelessness,” the League of Oregon Cities disappointingly advised attendees on how they might enact and enforce their own unlawful transfer regulations. Not only are these laws heartless and ineffective, they also attempt to restrict freedoms guaranteed to Oregonians under the state and federal constitutions.  

Perhaps the saddest part of all of this is that these laws work to prevent a key component of the real solution to our present housing emergency: Kindness.