ACLU Calls Albuquerque’s Panhandling Law ‘Entirely Irrational’

ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — In a federal lawsuit against Albuquerque, two men and three women call its new ordinance against panhandling an unconstitutional attack on free speech and assembly.

The City Council approved the ordinance in late November and it took effect on Dec. 2. It prohibits pedestrians from standing or assembling on streets, medians, highway exit and entrance ramps and major intersections. It also bars pedestrians from talking to or interacting with drivers and occupants of vehicles, and illegal for anyone in a vehicle to interact with pedestrians.

The 6-page ordinance opens by saying more than 4,000 pedestrians are killed by auto every year, and 70,000 are injured, and New Mexico was among the worst 10 states in per capita pedestrian injuries from 2010 through 2013.

But lead plaintiff John Martin, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, calls that a cover for a direct attack on panhandlers and the homeless.

“Indeed, Albuquerque Councilor Trudy Jones, who proposed the ordinance, said as much in remarks she made about the ordinance to the staff of a homeless services center: ‘We can only help people who want to be helped, and we cannot allow this to keep degrading our city … We have to take our streets back. We have to … retake control of our city, and if that means they go to Tucson, or Phoenix, or Dallas or Colorado where the drugs are cheaper, so be it,’” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, calls the ordinance unconstitutionally overbroad, “entirely irrational and unconstitutional on its face.”

“Far from merely preventing pedestrians from standing in the middle of a major intersection, the ordinance bars neighbors from having a conversation on the street outside their homes and even prohibits residents from gathering outside City Hall,” the complaint states.

ACLU staff attorney Maria Sanchez said in a statement: “This is just another heavy-handed attempt by the city to criminalize homelessness and push poor people out of sight and out of mind. People have a constitutional right to stand in public places and solicit donations, regardless of whether they’re looking for their next meal or raising money for Little League uniforms. If the Albuquerque City Council is serious about addressing issues of poverty and homelessness, it should abandon its punitive mentality and approach the problem in a way that is legal, compassionate, and effective. Criminalizing the solicitation of donations by the homeless in the dead of winter is not only unconstitutional, it is cruel.”

Strict interpretation of the ordinance bars not only panhandling, it criminalizes public protests and pamphleteering in Albuquerque, the ACLU says. It calls the law “an unconstitutional attempt to eliminate panhandling by criminalizing speech in public areas.”

Representatives from the city could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the law is unconstitutional and an injunction against its enforcement.

Lead attorney Sanchez is with the ACLU of New Mexico’s Albuquerque office. She is assisted by attorneys with Goodwin Procter’s offices in Boston and Washington, D.C.

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