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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Seated or Standing, Virginia Panhandler Is Out of Luck

(CN) - A Virginia man cannot try to restore a legal loophole that let him panhandle while seated, as opposed to standing, on a highway median, a federal judge ruled.

Robert Reynolds supported himself solely on contributions he solicited while sitting in the median strip of roadways in Henrico County, Va.

County law used to prohibit a person from soliciting or passing out handbills while standing in the roadway - but not while sitting.

But on Oct. 23, 2012, the county struck the word "standing" from the ordinance, to prohibit anyone, standing or not, from soliciting in the roadway.

Both Reynolds and Police Chief Douglas Middleton testified at a public hearing before the vote, with the latter supporting the proposed change in the interest of public safety.

Reynolds then sued Middleton pro se, claiming that the revised ordinance violated his rights to free speech, due process and equal protection, and also interfered with his contractual obligation to pay rent.

U.S. District Judge John Gibney Jr. disagreed Tuesday, however, finding that the ordinance is a content-neutral restriction, and therefore constitutional.

"The ordinance prohibits all interactions between pedestrians in the roadway and motorists," the nine-page opinion states. "Neither Girl Scouts nor panhandlers may solicit from or interact with motorists."

In addition, the ordinance is sufficiently narrow to further its interest in public safety, without stepping on the public's right to free speech.

"The ordinance leaves open alternative channels of communication," Gibney wrote. "The sidewalks and areas just past the shoulders remain fair game for begging, passing out handbills, or selling goods. ... Plenty of alternative channels of communication exist for Reynolds. Soliciting from the side of the road still provides Reynolds with his opportunity to win the attention of his listeners."

Reynolds also cannot claim that the ordinance interferes with his contract with his landlord, the judge said, noting that "Reynolds remains perfectly free to pay his rent and presumably retain his home."

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