City, ACLU jointly dismiss ‘public welfare laws’ lawsuit

2024 JULY 08 CTY ACLU HOMELESS HSA PHOTO BY CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM At the end of June the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling which makes it easier for cities to fine and arrest homeless individuals. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i (ACLU of Hawaiʻi) and the City & County of Honolulu agreed to dismiss a lawsuit challenging houseless sweeps in the City and County of Honolulu on Monday, July 8, 2024. Pictured is Robert San Agustin breaking down a tent after receiving a citation from an HPD officer for structures on the sidewalk of Ilalo Street in Kakaako on Monday, July 8, 2024. San Agustin lives in his own tent nearby but was watching the encampment for a family of four who were away at work for the day.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the City and County of Honolulu on Monday jointly agreed to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the city’s homeless sweeps program on Oahu.

Filed in July 2023, the ACLU of Hawaii’s lawsuit involving five homeless plaintiffs — Mahelona, et al. v. City and County of Honolulu — had challenged those sweeps and other city “anti-houseless” laws, which the group alleged “unjustly criminalized acts of survival that houseless people have no choice but to perform in public places.”


In August the ACLU filed for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the city’s sweeps of encampments constitute cruel or unusual punishment under the Hawaii Constitution, and asked the court to order the city to stop such targeted enforcement actions to prevent further irreparable harm.

During an October hearing, the court heard testimony from five named plaintiffs as well as others who are homeless.

But by January the court denied the request for a preliminary injunction to halt the alleged unconstitutional practices.

The dismissed litigation follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 28 ruling in City of Grants Pass v. Johnson.

The high court’s decision in that case now allows local governments to regulate public property, through laws such as camping ordinances and park closure rules, without violating the constitutional rights to protect against “cruel and unusual punishments” allowed under the Eighth Amendment.

“The Grants Pass decision does not directly impact our local lawsuit, Mahelona,” Taylor Brack, staff attorney for the ACLU of Hawaii, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Monday. “The SCOTUS decision was based in federal constitutional law, and our local plaintiffs’ claims were asserted under state constitutional law.”

She added that “the parties agreed to dismiss this case in light of the 1st Circuit Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ preliminary injunction motion.”

“Plaintiffs were subsequently denied the opportunity to appeal that denial,” Brack said.

Judge John M. Tonaki granted the formal dismissal. “Each party is to bear its own attorneys’ fees and costs,” the judge wrote. “All claims and parties are dismissed with prejudice, and the dismissal herein is a complete resolution of this matter.”

“There is no monetary settlement,” Scott Humber, the mayor’s communications director, told the Star-Advertiser. “Today’s dismissal of the lawsuit means there are no longer any challenges to any of our actions in addressing the homeless problem on Oahu.”

In a written statement, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said he was “extremely pleased with this outcome.”

“It completely strengthens our ability to enforce these laws to protect our residents and visitors,” the mayor said. “We’ll keep working with all stakeholders to address homelessness and make sure our public spaces remain safe and clean. We are also committed to working with Gov. Green and his team to provide unprecedented resources for helping the homeless, from shelters to permanent housing.”

Still, the ACLU contends federal cases like Grants Pass will indeed have an impact on the homeless.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling in Grants Pass opens the door for cities to ticket, fine, and jail people simply for trying to survive while poor,” Wookie Kim, ACLU of Hawaii’s legal director, said Monday in a written statement. “But just because the court says they can, does not mean cities and counties in Hawaii should. Local efforts to criminalize the unhoused may still violate the Hawaii Constitution.”

He said “Hawaii’s courts have a long history of providing broader protections under our” state constitution.

“Just last spring, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Bissen that homeless individuals have a constitutionally recognized property interest in their possessions and are entitled to a fair hearing before the state can seize and destroy their property,” he said.

“Moreover, it’s important to know that sweeps and enforcement of other actions, when applied to homeless people with no other options, may still violate other rights and be challengeable on other legal grounds under our Hawaii Constitution,” Kim said.

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