ACLU Challenges Cleveland’s Anti-Panhandling Laws

CLEVELAND (CN) – A disabled veteran and a nonprofit advocacy group for the homeless backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio claim Cleveland’s anti-panhandling ordinances violate First Amendment rights.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Cleveland federal court, John Mancini and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, or NEOCH, say two Cleveland ordinances that criminalize panhandling are unconstitutional, content-based restrictions on free speech.

“Cleveland is aggressively charging poor, and homeless, residents with a crime if it catches them asking for help,” ACLU attorneys say in a memorandum accompanying the complaint.  “These ordinances were expressly crafted to drive a disliked form of speech (panhandling) and speaker (homeless or very poor individuals) from public view.” (Parentheses in original.)

Mancini and NEOCH seek a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction enjoining the city of Cleveland from enforcing its anti-panhandling ordinances.

The lawsuit names as defendants the city, Mayor Frank Jackson and Chief of Police Calvin Williams.

The lawsuit claims the Cleveland Police Department has issued over 5,800 tickets for violations of the anti-panhandling ordinances between 2007 and 2015.   These laws allegedly target the homeless and destitute who generally cannot afford to pay the associated fines, so they often end up being jailed.

Mancini is a disabled veteran who says he typically sits quietly on a sidewalk or stands alongside a roadway holding a cardboard sign that reads, “wartime vet; can you please help a vet trying to get by; your help appreciated.”

In December 2016 and January 2017, he was ticketed four times and convicted once for violating Cleveland’s anti-panhandling ordinances, according to the lawsuit.

The first ordinance in question is Cleveland Municipal Ordinance 605.031, which is officially titled “aggressive solicitation.” It prohibits panhandling within a 10-20 foot buffer zone around specific areas like ATM machines, bus stops, outdoor restaurants and valet zones. It also bans panhandlers from soliciting a donation from a person twice or asking a person to reconsider once they’ve said “no.”

The other ordinance is Cleveland Municipal Ordinance 471.06(b)-(d), which prohibits soliciting or accepting contributions near any roadway, but contains exceptions that permit solicitation for police and firefighters asking for contributions for “bona fide charities.”

Mancini and NEOCH argue these ordinances violate the free-speech protections guaranteed under the U.S. and Ohio Constitutions.

“By expressly targeting panhandling speech based on its subject matter, function, or purpose, Cleveland’s Anti-Panhandling Ordinances are content-based restrictions on speech that are presumptively unconstitutional,” the lawsuit states.

In a memorandum in support of the plaintiffs’ motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, the ACLU argues, “Cleveland’s ordinances are plainly unconstitutional under a long and ever-growing list of precedent from the Supreme Court, the Sixth Circuit, and federal courts from Massachusetts to Hawaii.”

“Against this backdrop of firmly established law, cities across Ohio (and indeed the nation) have repealed anti-panhandling laws like Cleveland’s, rather than face a losing judicial battle,” the memo states. (Parentheses in original.)

The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent.

A spokesman for the city of Cleveland said it does not comment on ongoing legal matters.

In addition to a restraining order and injunctive relief, Mancini and NEOCH seek an unspecified amount of damages and attorneys’ fees.

They are represented by Joseph Mead in Cleveland and also by Freda Levenson and Elizabeth Bonham of the ACLU of Ohio. Mead is a volunteer attorney with the ACLU.

“Do we really want the government to decide what people are and are not allowed to talk about?” Mead said in a statement. “The First Amendment means that cities cannot ban speech simply because people would rather not hear the message. Yet that is precisely what Cleveland’s ordinances do. They single out and punish panhandlers who ask for money, but do not punish any other type of speech.”

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