Albuquerque Agrees Not to Arrest Panhandlers — Yet

ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — In a deal with the ACLU, Albuquerque agreed not to enforce an ordinance barring panhandlers from soliciting drivers or lingering on street medians and intersections — yet.

Slated to take effect in December 2017, the law 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 makes it illegal for anyone in a vehicle to interact with pedestrians.

The ACLU of New Mexico sued the city in January, calling the ordinance an unconstitutional attack on free speech and assembly. It called the law 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.

Albuquerque is not the only city to try to control panhandling with a citywide ban. The ACLU sued Cleveland in March 2017, challenging a similar ban in Cleveland, and in 2015 the First Circuit called Portland, Maine’s panhandling ban from medians unconstitutional.

Now in a Feb. 8 deal with the ACLU, Albuquerque agreed to refrain from “arresting, charging, or prosecuting any person pursuant to the Ordinance; ordering any person to refrain from speaking or to leave any public place pursuant to the Ordinance; or threatening or attempting to undertake any of the foregoing actions pursuant to the Ordinance.”

In return, the ACLU and the individual plaintiffs have withdrawn their motion for a preliminary injunction.

City Councilor Trudy Jones, who sponsored the law, emphasized that enforcement has only been delayed, not stopped.

“We’re really confident that we’re going to win,” she told the Albuquerque Journal. “But we certainly don’t want to be in a situation where we would be faced with paying damages to people who might have been cited.”

The ACLU called it a victory.

“This ordinance has always been about pushing homeless people and poor people out of public view,” ACLU of New Mexico staff attorney Maria Sanchez said in a statement.

“We’re relieved that with this agreement in place Albuquerque’s most vulnerable residents will be able to exercise their constitutional rights without fear that they will be harassed, cited or arrested by the police. Through our lawsuit, we’ll continue fighting to ensure the ordinance is declared unconstitutional and permanently stricken down.”

Representatives from the city and the ACLU could not be reached by phone for comment on Tuesday afternoon.

Albuquerque, pop. 560,000, has been so plagued by police violence its police department has been placed under a federal monitor. In what many viewed as an election-year gimmick, Governor Susana Martinez last month suggested legislation that would immunize New Mexico police officers for any action they take in the line of duty.

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