FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (CN) - An Arizona law that criminalized panhandling is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled.
The ACLU of Arizona filed suit in June against Flagstaff's City Attorney Michelle D'Andrea, Police Chief Kevin Treadway, and Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne after a 77-year-old disabled Hopi woman was arrested for panhandling.
The law was adopted in 2008 to stop loitering and begging for money on public streets and in public areas.
Marlene Baldwin was arrested in February after asking an undercover police officer for $1.25 for bus fare. The charge was later dismissed.
The ACLU argued that on its face the law "prohibits constitutionally protected speech; arrests have been made in Flagstaff as soon as an undercover police officer hears a person asking for money, even for an amount of one or two dollars to buy food."
"The statute is not limited in any manner, and covers requests made in any public area and at any time of the day or night," the complaint continued. "Aggressive or disruptive conduct is not a required element of this provision. This state law is directed at constitutionally protected expression and chills the exercise of this fundamental right, and should be enjoined by this court on its face."
U.S. District Judge Neil Wake ordered that law enforcement agencies in Arizona must stop enforcing the law. All law enforcement agencies in the state will receive a copy of the injunction within 30 days.
The injunction states defendants "shall be permanently enjoined from interfering with, targeting, citing, arresting, or prosecuting any person on the basis of their act(s) of peaceful begging in public areas within the City of Flagstaff. This injunction does not prohibit content neutral time, place or manner restrictions that are consistent with court decisions interpreting the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the free speech clause of the Arizona Constitution."
The lawsuit claimed Flagstaff arrested 135 people in the past year for "loitering to beg."
"Flagstaff officials ignored the fact that constitutional protections for speech do not depend on public approval of the views expressed," said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda in a statement. "Flagstaff will no longer be allowed to elevate the interests of local business owners above the rights of persons seeking a dollar for food."
In addition to Baldwin, the other named plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Andrew Wilkenson, Robert George Jr., and the organization Food Not Bombs.
The Flagstaff City Council voted unanimously to stop enforcing the law on Sept. 24, and agreed to settle Baldwin's lawsuit.
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