Judge Slams Indiana for Attempted Panhandling Ban

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) — Calling it an unconstitutional curb of free-speech rights at a “pivotal time in our history,” a federal judge blocked Indiana from enforcing a new panhandling ban set to take effect Wednesday.

The 28-page ruling from Jane Magnus-Stinson, chief judge of the Southern District of Indiana, includes a quote from historic abolitionist Frederick Douglas in the opening paragraph.

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants,” it says, in part.

This 2014 photo shows the view southeast across Monument Circle from the Sheraton Indianapolis City Centre. (By alexiseatswhalesFlickr.com, CC BY 2.0, Link)

Had the law proceeded it would have prohibited verbal requests for money within 50 feet of ATMs, banks, businesses, restaurants and public monuments in downtown Indianapolis and other urban areas of Indiana.

The injunction was celebrated by the ACLU, which challenged the ban this past April.

“This preliminary injunction will help to protect the constitutional rights of all, including vulnerable Hoosiers who appear to be the particular target of this law,” said Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana. “The Indiana legislature should be trying to remedy the reasons driving homelessness and joblessness. Criminalizing poverty is never a solution.” 

The state Attorney General’s Office had argued that public-safety concerns justify the regulation otherwise known as House Enrolled Act 1022.

“The panhandling statute is trying to create a safe space where there is no verbal request for money that could escalate to more serious criminal behavior,” Deputy Attorneys general Andrea Rahman, Lauren Jacobsen and Jefferson Garn had said in a June opposition brief. “The panhandling statute ensures the easy flow of foot traffic and provides a safe place for people to park their cars, go shopping, and purchase food without fear of being confronted with a request for money.”

Such arguments did little, however, to sway Judge Magnus-Stinson.

“For example, they do not provide any statistics linking panhandling to disruptions to business, or showing that panhandling typically escalates to criminal behavior,” she wrote. “This case is not a close call, because defendants submit no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that the statute furthers a compelling governmental interest. What little they do provide — ex post facto justifications for the statute, based purely on speculation — is not enough to satisfy the ‘heavy burden’ defendants carry in defending the statute under a strict scrutiny analysis.”

Part of the ACLU’s legal argument was fashioned on its plans to celebrate Constitution Day this September by gathering in an area of downtown Indianapolis known as Monument Circle where staffers will hand out pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution while trying to recruit new members.

In its complaint, the ACLU argued that the new law would have prevented them from asking for donations at such an event, while people who solicit donations for a political candidate would still be free to approach anyone on the street.

Magnus-Stinson found the law overly restrictive in this regard.

“Defendants need not show that the ACLU of Indiana would lose a certain number of memberships or a certain amount of money absent an injunction,” she wrote. “The fact that the statute would deprive defendants of exercising their First Amendment rights at the Constitution Day celebration is sufficient for plaintiffs to establish irreparable harm absent an injunction.”

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