Homeless activists sue Sacramento County to block panhandling ban

07/17/2014 12:32 PM

07/18/2014 7:01 AM

The Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging a new Sacramento County panhandling ordinance as unconstitutional.

Supervisors unanimously passed the ordinance in May, which prohibits aggressive panhandling anywhere in the unincorporated county and bans solicitation specifically at street medians, banks, ATMs and gas stations.

The advocacy group, which publishes a bimonthly newspaper dedicated to homeless issues, is being represented in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and local attorney Mark Merin. ACLU Legal Director Alan Schlosser said the plaintiffs want a hearing within a week for a temporary injunction to suspend the ordinance, which took effect June 13.

Schlosser said the new law violates the U.S. Constitution by allowing charities to collect money in public places but banning panhandlers from doing so.

Panhandling restrictions have been approved by local governments across the state, including Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Sacramento. But Sacramento County appears to be unique in creating an exemption for a group of people, Schlosser said.

The exemption and a desire to stop the law from ever being enforced were reasons for the ACLU to challenge the law, he said.

“They were certainly not intending to limit aggressive panhandling,” Schlosser said. “They are trying to push the homeless out of town.”

County spokeswoman Chris Andis said it’s county policy not to comment about pending litigation.

However, Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan defended the ordinance.

“Staff went to great lengths to write a law that recognizes the constitutional right to panhandling, but also restricts its locations where people feel vulnerable,” she said.

Earlier this month, Rancho Cordova tentatively approved a similar restriction on “aggressive panhandling” that prohibits solicitation in places where people are a “captive audience” to pleas for money. The law must be approved a second time next week before becoming law.

A city staff report said the amendment is legal based on recent court decisions and “the regulations are content neutral, meaning the regulations do not treat individuals differently depending on their message.” The regulations must also “serve an important government interest.”

Pamela Poole, executive director of the Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, said she and other homeless members of the committee are worried that the county law will prohibit them from collecting donations in conjunction with the distribution of Homeward, which has a circulation of 8,000 to 11,000. Homeless people get copies of the newspaper free or for a nominal fee and then seek a recommended donation of $1 for each paper, which they keep.

Billy Murphy, a plaintiff in the case, said he has largely relied on panhandling for income since becoming homeless in October. He said he has stopped panhandling in Citrus Heights after being cited there in March, and he worries that Sacramento County’s ordinance will have the same effect on him.

Murphy said he generally panhandles on sidewalks and doesn’t solicit people verbally. Instead, he just holds signs, such as “Homeless Will Work Have Bike Will Travel ... Please Help.”

“I just want people to know I need help,” he said.

A county spokesman said last week that the county is spending the first two months educating residents about the law and has not yet issued citations. Under the law, violations would be cited as an infraction, with three infractions in six months resulting in a misdemeanor charge.

Representatives of the Watt Avenue Merchants Association, the Fulton Avenue Association and the Florin Road Partnership told the board in May that they support the ban. They said panhandling seems to be on the rise in certain parts of the county.

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