Flagstaff Sued in Federal Court: Arizona Law Against Panhandling Is Un-Constitutional

by on October 16, 2013 · 0 comments

in California, Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Homelessness, Ocean Beach

Grand CanyonOcean Beach Needs to Draw Lessons From Ruling

Six years ago the well-known city of Flagstaff, Arizona, began enforcing a state law that made it a criminal offense to panhandle or beg for money or food.

Flagstaff is, of course, close to the national treasure the Grand Canyon, is often awash with tourists and transients alike.  Merchants and some residents were getting tired of what they perceived as overly-aggressive panhandling by the transients on the town’s streets – especially in the commercial area.  So pressure was applied and the city council ordered police to arrest anyone who panhandled.

During one year, Flagstaff police arrested an estimated 135 people – all on suspicion of loitering to beg.  They would be arrested early in the day – in order to avoid the tourists probably. Some were jailed.  A local attorney said, “Many of the people arrested under the begging law simply needed a little assistance — not a jail cell.”

Wow, “suspicion to beg”.

Flagstaff City Council

Flagstaff City Council had to reverse course as their policy against the homeless was ruled unconstitutional.

The good news is that the law has been declared to be unconstitutional just recently by a federal judge.  In a suit against the city of Flagstaff by the local ACLU on behalf of a 77-year old woman, busted for asking an undercover cop for bus fare, the court ruled the Arizona law was unconstitutional.

And the city council of Flagstaff declared that they would no longer enforce the statute.

The overly-aggressive policy towards panhandling that Flagstaff enacted does reflect a nation-wide trend, where cities and states have passed laws to prevent panhandling to actually control the movement of the homeless – without dealing with the problem of homelessness.

Ocean Beach Is Like Flagstaff

Places like Flagstaff attract more than their “share” of the homeless due to its beauty and weather and tourist targets. Ocean Beach is also another such place where the wonders of nature attract a diverse social and economic spectrum of visitors.

It’s no secret that some in Ocean Beach wish that panhandling in OB could be banned.  Many of these folks are victims of the behavior of the victims of homelessness.  But there are differences in the types of begging.

Yes, there are differences between panhandling / begging versus the more aggressive stance taken by a few of the homeless in their solicitations.   Peaceful begging is generally characterized as holding a sign or asking passersby for money or food.

A few states have passed similar laws as Arizona’s against begging, but Courts have across the country ruled that laws against aggressive panhandling and harassment are constitutional but have found that peaceful begging is protected by the Constitution.

Flagstaff’s enforcement efforts against panhandling and begging were a case of extreme enforcement, said Heather Maria Johnson, civil rights director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington.

Locales like Flagstaff – and Ocean Beach – have to come to terms with a national problem – homelessness – and not try to force the homeless off the streets with draconian laws, using up precious government dollars (how much did it cost Flagstaff to fund undercover cops sneaking around the homeless waiting for someone to ask them for money for food – 0r as in this case, money for bus fare to leave town?) and having to be more creative and compassionate in the search for solutions.

Here below is the LA Times article that made up part of this post.

By Cindy Carcamo / LA Times / Originally published  October 7, 2013

An Arizona law that makes it a crime to beg for money or food in public is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.  The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona against the city of Flagstaff, which has drawn national attention for its aggressive stance on panhandling by jailing some violators.

Last month, the city changed course after the ACLU sued on behalf of a 77-year-old woman who had been arrested when she asked an undercover police officer for bus fare. ACLU attorneys argued that the state law, which makes it a crime to beg in public spaces, and Flagstaff’s enforcement of it were unconstitutional.

The council agreed and voted unanimously to stop enforcing the statute, promising that city officials would no longer interfere with a person peacefully begging in public spaces. But the council left the door open to imposing other restrictions.

Peaceful begging is generally characterized as holding a sign or asking passersby for money or food.

Following the suit, Atty. Gen. Tom Horne also weighed in, saying he would not contest the ACLU’s effort to have a federal judge declare the state law unconstitutional.

The ACLU lawsuit challenged a policy Flagstaff adopted six years ago to remove people from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on suspicion of loitering to beg.

Flagstaff police had arrested an estimated 135 people on suspicion of loitering to beg during one year. In some cases, those people were jailed, said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who served as ACLU co-counsel in the lawsuit.

“Many of the people arrested under the begging law simply needed a little assistance — not a jail cell,” Jordahl said in a statement released by the ACLU after Friday’s court ruling. “Law enforcement must stand up for the constitutional rights of peaceful beggars and not just respond to complaints from powerful downtown business interests who would take those rights away and sweep homelessness and poverty out of sight.”

Flagstaff’s aggressive stance reflected a national trend of states and localities using the law to try to prevent panhandling and control the movements of the homeless, said Heather Maria Johnson, civil rights director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington.

Some states have passed similar laws against begging, while others have relied on old laws, but Flagstaff’s efforts were a case of extreme enforcement, Johnson said.

Courts nationwide have ruled that laws against aggressive panhandling and harassment are constitutional but have found that peaceful begging is protected by the Constitution.

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