Civil Liberties

Busting an Old Lady for Asking for Bus Fare Gets Flagstaff, Arizona Sued


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I enjoyed the years I lived in Flagstaff. Being able to snowshoe or mountain bike from the front door of my rented condo into the forest was a very pleasant way of breaking up a telecommuting day. Bicycling to one of the brewpubs in town wasn't too shabby, either. But, like a lot of college towns, Flagstaff's elected leaders considered leaving people alone to live their own lives to be an archaic practice best left to the rubes. The city has a formal 25-year plan for how the city should look in the future, the dynamic flow of life be damned. When it became clear that displaying naughty bits (whether your own or somebody else's) for money was a viable business venture in an area desperate for economic opportunity, urban leaders decreed the necessity of intrusive background checks and licensing. And now Flagstaff faces a lawsuit after rather too enthusiastically tossing people in the pokey for criminally asking passers-by for spare change.

Flagstaff set the scene for the current lawsuit when it crafted "Operation 40" in 2008. The Arizona Daily Sun reported at the time, "In an effort to cut down on petty and serious crime, Flagstaff police started an operation at the beginning of the year aimed at getting law-breaking, alcoholic transients off the street earlier in the day." To the end of ridding the city of "alcoholic transients," the city set about strictly enforcing "all petty violations committed by street alcoholics, Boughner said. Those offenses include: Panhandling, drinking in public, trespassing, littering, urinating in public and disorderly conduct." Specifically, the city is making a lot of arrests for "loitering to beg."

Admittedly, Flagstaff has more than a few merry tipplers roaming the streets. Aside from its home-grown drunks (and me, on occasion), it's the nearest booze-serving settlement to the officially dry Navajo reservation. But, not surprisingly, arrests seem to have scooped up more than a few "alcoholic transients."

From the ACLU of Arizona:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona today filed a lawsuit on behalf of an elderly Hopi woman who was arrested for begging in Flagstaff and a volunteer-run organization that feeds the hungry, claiming the City of Flagstaff's effort to rid city streets of beggars is unconstitutional and criminalizes peaceful panhandling in public places. …

In addition to Baldwin, the ACLU also is representing Robert George and Andrew R. Wilkenson, both of whom were threatened with arrest and are now afraid to exercise their right to peacefully solicit, and Food Not Bombs, a volunteer-run organization that regularly feeds the homeless in local city parks.  Several of its members have been arrested for requesting donations from passersby.

The ACLU points out that laws against "aggressive panhandling" have been upheld, but Flagstaff is now busting people just for opening their mouths and asking for change. Baldwin was arrested for "asking an undercover Flagstaff Police Officer if he could spare $1.25 for bus fare." That's not a shocker considering that a 2011 police blotter item reported the arrest of a woman who "approached one of the officers and offered to sell him jewelry she had made. When he declined, she asked for money."

The ACLU argues that a flurry of 135 arrests of this sort over one year in the small city is "violating people's free speech rights by arresting them for peacefully soliciting donations in public."

Don't expect the city to back down. When people complained about background checks and licenses for adult entertainment, city council member Norm Wallen (a busybody of the first order) was shocked that anybody could object. "Other than being offended by a stigma, I'm not sure what the employees are objecting to."