Criminal Justice

ACLU Challenges Laws Criminalizing Panhandling

The civil rights group argues that such laws infringe on free speech.

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Anthonyata | Dreamstime.com

Depending on where you live and where you're standing, asking for money may be a crime.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a pair of lawsuits—one in Summit County, Ohio, and the other in Fall River, Massachusetts—to change that. Both municipalities prohibit panhandling on public roads.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement that "asking for help" has been criminalized by the Bay State. "This Massachusetts law and Fall River's enforcement of it are unconstitutional attacks on free speech that prey on those who are most vulnerable."

Asking for help is indeed the crux of the issue in Massachusetts. The state's panhandling ban only applies to personal donations; it does not punish the selling of goods or services, nor does it prohibit individuals from soliciting cash for something philanthropic.

"Under this statute, if someone holds up a 'Newspapers for sale' sign next to a roadway, the request for funds is lawful," Ruth Bourquin, senior attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement. "If a sign says 'Save the whales,' the request is lawful if the sign seeks money for an organization with a permit from local police. But if a sign says 'Homeless—anything helps,' the request is strictly illegal. That's offensive to the Constitution and to the values we hold as a Commonwealth."

The civil rights nonprofit has successfully challenged ordinances in nearby Worcester and Lowell, which banned "aggressive panhandling" and criminalized the act of begging within 20 feet of various public places. Those included bus stops, banks, restaurants, and theatres, where beggars were automatically deemed "aggressive" for so much as holding a sign. Arrests left panhandlers vulnerable to the associated fines and court fees—money they likely didn't have, considering the nature of their offenses.

In the Lowell case, the city argued that curbing panhandling was a matter of public safety. It creates a "raucous alternative culture," city officials said, namely because it attracts the "modern-day court jesters or buffoons" who are engaging in "parasitism."

Judge Douglas Woodlock of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts disagreed. Arguing that the restriction encroached on First Amendment rights, he said that begging is an "expressive act." Lowell had a "content-based intent in enacting the Ordinance," Woodlock wrote, as evidenced by "the City's fervent denunciation of the culture of panhandling."

In Summit County, Ohio—where the ACLU's second case is pending—a statute not only forbids begging near roadways, but makes criminals out of those who donate. The local council passed the measure a few weeks before Christmas.

"It was a season of misery and pain and suffering," Leon Wilson, who was censured for panhandling in Summit County's Bath Township jurisdiction, told Cleveland's ABC affiliate. "Every day I'm surviving—every day just to survive day by day. Not month by month." He is unable to work because of a disability, he said.

The county is arguing that donating to panhandlers situated on roadways can elevate traffic risks. But the ACLU isn't convinced.

"The Bath Township Police told our client, 'I want you to leave and never come back,'" said ACLU staff attorney Elizabeth Bonham in a statement. "Mr. Wilson is being harassed for exercising his constitutional rights. The First Amendment means that cities and counties cannot penalize people for helping each other."

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  1. When I first started reading this, I thought it was a typical ACLU thing. Just like public urination or some such.
    But I admit, if it is legal to ask for donations to help other people or cause on a public street, then it should be legal to ask for donations for yourself on that same street.

    1. Quite to the contrary, panhandlers are among the most unwanted elements of our society and should be quickly jailed whenever they cause any sort of unpleasantness. This “asking for donations” argument is like saying that since light, comedic, reverential mimicry is legal, it should also be legal to viciously mock a distinguished member of the academic community with deceitfully deadpan “parody.” As we know from our nation’s leading criminal “satire” case, certain lines must, and will, be drawn whenever they need to be drawn. See the documentation at:

      https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com

    2. It should be allowed but not without 1800 hours of occupational training. No suffering without a license.

  2. Why should the downtrodden get a free pass on voluntary monetary transactions?

    1. Good point FOE!! If I can get arrested for giving a women $100, and she decides to thank me with physical affection, then someone DEFINITELY ought to get arrested for giving someone $20 when they don’t even get any thing back!!

      1. It’s the getting nothing back that makes it illegal.

        1. Damn right!! If I can’t at least virtue signal that I saved a whale, then by the gods, I expect a hummer!

          1. Just to be clear, that was an attempt at humor. I don’t think I have never seen anyone panhandling from whom I would want to receive said physical affection!

            1. My was an attempt at humour too, so it’s humour all the way down.

              1. Way to add the “u” to try to get the Canadian laughs!

                1. That’s British. Canadians are just culturally appropriating it.

  3. It’s the ACLU, so I guess we have to ask–are they talking about on public property or private property?

    “The civil rights nonprofit has successfully challenged ordinances in nearby Worcester and Lowell, which banned “aggressive panhandling” and criminalized the act of begging within 20 feet of various public places.”

    You don’t have a First Amendment right to violate people’s rights by camping on their property and bothering their customers.

    Public property is another story.

    1. I’m going to guess that this has nothing to do with private property. And even if it did, if I allow a panhandler on my property– or perhaps don’t do anything to shoo him off but he’s within 20′ of a “public place” then it’s illegal?

      1. It matters to me.

        I have no problem with the government being required to tolerate panhandling on public property in the name of the First Amendment.

        I have a big problem with the ACLU asserting that panhandlers have a First Amendment right to trespass on private property–if that’s what they’re effectively doing.

      2. The best thing about this proposal is that it would lead to agitation by business owners for the right to buy their streets private and keep them that way.

    2. Incidentally, the difference between aggressive panhandling and strong arm robbery should sometimes be in the eye of the jury.

      1. Stand your ground.

      2. Well, extortion, anyway.

  4. the other in Fall River, Massachusetts

    The White Trash Capital of Massachusetts, which is saying something.

    1. I thought that was Pittsfield.

      1. There is a casino in Springfield now, so that dump has to go up a notch or 2.

        1. There aren’t enough white people living in Springfield for it to be the white trash capital. I’d say it’s either Ware or Palmer or one of the towns right around them, but nobody has ever heard of them.

  5. Yes panhandling should be a right, provided both parties complete IRS forms documenting the transaction.

    1. Don’t think you are being facetious; the IRS requires our church to obtain identification from each person we help, and report assistance over a certain amount.
      So if we fill up a gas tank for a stranded traveler, we have paperwork to do.
      When we deliver food to a family whose stove is broken, we have paperwork to do.
      Your tax dollars at work. Maybe the reason there was no one to investigate Lois Lerner is that the agents were busy reviewing our paperwork for errors of omission.

  6. Has anyone studied the effects of the panhandler wage gap?

  7. Don’t just assume that every beggar is some down on their luck basket case looking for a handout just to get by.

    1. No, and if they fraudulently claim to be such, I’d say arrest them.

      A sandwich, or a gift certificate redeemable for a sandwich, would at least make it a bit harder for them to misuse the donation (“trade you my sandwich for some meth!”).

      1. How about a web site with pictures of all the phony homeless people being picked up in nice cars at the end of a shift? I’ve sure seen it happen plenty of times.

    2. I wish I could find the link, but I remember a news story that a reporter went undercover as a panhandler and was making literally a couple hundred bucks a day. Tax free.

    3. Yup. A crummy job to be sure, but the bucks are big. A busy intersection, yielding $2 every five minutes would equal $24 per hour. That’s over $52K per year tax free if worked 40 hours per week. And I’ve seen some of them on the same intersection every day, all day for months on end… and I’d say that $2 per five minutes is probably a conservative number.

      1. Look at you with all the fancy big numbers and shit!

      2. Didn’t Stossel do that once?

    4. 175 episodes of Intervention evidence this.

  8. It be nice if the article linked to the statutes. It’s only a speech issue if the statutes aren’t content neutral. If they explicitly reference panhandling, they’re likely doomed. But they could easily be “loitering on a roadway shoulder” and be fine. I don’t think the law is necessary, but there are panhandlers who set up shop in places that are particularly dangerous. Personally, I’d think Darwin should be allowed win in place of yet more State nannyism.

    1. Re: Darwin

      Truer words were never uttered my friend!

  9. Panhandling should also be subject to state sales tax. Think of it as a virtue tax.

  10. It creates a “raucous alternative culture,” city officials said, namely because it attracts the “modern-day court jesters or buffoons” who are engaging in “parasitism.”

    But enough about the 2020 election.

  11. The ACLU wants everywhere to be Seattle.

  12. Unless there exists a U.S.C. (Law) making it illegal in ALL STATES to panhandle the ACLU is full of BS again!

    “Congress shall make no law” … “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press….”

    It doesn’t guarantee every person in any state the right to graphite, loiter, talk-smack and pollute as they wish.
    Once again; The ACLU is manipulating the Constitution and turning it over on its head to grant “entitlement” instead a limited government.

  13. Reason is beginning to discredit itself on this issue by disregarding the right of the “begg-ee” to be left alone.

    At the very least, the law ought to declare begging to be fighting words, so that if the police won’t arrest aggressive beggars, we can punch them out as they deserve.

    1. I’ve encountered aggressive and non-aggressive panhandlers, there’s a difference.

  14. ACLU wants to give schizophrenic have-nots the right to harass everyone else. Fuck off.

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  16. Seems that the ACLU has forgotten that the targets of these panhandlers also have rights. In the 1980’s, the panhandlers in Manhattan would take a rag to your windshield when you stopped at a light. They might or might not get out of your way when the light changed. Going down the same road again. Also, the ACLU also got mentally ill patients the right to sign themselves out of incarceration if they could get someone to attest they were not a serious threat. However, the accumulation of these people in the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco are creating a costly health crises. How do you explain to your 10 year old daughter the bag of human excrement in the street outside your house?

  17. Hmm, I don’t think the law is necessary, but there are panhandlers who set up shop in places that are particularly dangerous.

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