Politics & Government

Panhandlers can ask for cash near ATMs and stores as judge halts Sacramento crackdown

A federal judge ordered an immediate halt Thursday to Sacramento's ordinance against aggressive panhandling, saying "this is a direct First Amendment case" involving the free speech rights of individuals seeking donations from passersby.

U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. issued a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the ordinance, which was adopted unanimously by the City Council last November.

"As of now, it is in place," England said, adding that if attorneys for the city want to return with new evidence of why the injunction should be lifted he will order a new hearing.

Civil liberties groups and homeless advocates filed suit against the city in April, challenging the ordinance on behalf of James Lee "Faygo" Clark, a well-known homeless activist who said the ordinance unfairly kept him from soliciting for donations outside the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op at 28th and R streets and other locations.

"This ruling protects the First Amendment," Clark, 37, said after the brief hearing, adding that the injunction means he can resume his regular activities.

"I can go to up to my spot at the co-op that I like to sit at and hold my sign peacefully - not bothering anybody - and try to get some food for the day," he said. "I'll be able to do that without worrying about risking arrest."

Mayor Darrell Steinberg declined to comment directly on the lawsuit, but noted that the city is trying to address homelessness in a variety of ways.

“The panhandling ordinance is a very small piece of our overall strategy," Steinberg said in a statement. "We will continue to focus the bulk of our effort on addressing the systemic causes of homelessness.

"We have raised more than $120 million in public and private funds to get thousands of people off the streets humanely and effectively.”

City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said officials were "disappointed" with the judge's order and would provide additional information to the court and seek reconsideration.

Wood added that she believed England "showed a great deal of understanding of the difficult position the city faces."

"There is wide agreement that aggressive behavior that creates unacceptable harm to individuals and businesses must be addressed in a meaningful way," Wood said in a statement. "The Court was sympathetic to the Council’s difficult task of grappling with these significant and complicated issues."

The city had argued in court papers that the ordinance "is constitutional" and that attorneys needed more time to study the steps necessary to consider amending the ordinance.

The city asked for another four months to respond, with Senior Deputy City Attorney Sean Richmond saying an injunction would be a "drastic remedy" that would amount to "de facto repudiation of a legislative act."

England rejected that notion, saying that it may be "bothersome" to some people to be approached and asked for money but that the rights to free speech must be considered.

The ordinance banned soliciting within 30 feet of ATMs or banks, driveway entrances to businesses or near bus stops, and was approved after complaints from business and tourism groups about aggressive panhandling.

Clark and the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness sued, and attorneys for Legal Services of Northern California and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California represented them in court.

The groups won a temporary stay against enforcing the order last week, pending the outcome of Thursday's hearing.

ACLU attorney Abre' Conner, who argued for the injunction, said the city's ordinance had the effect of criminalizing homelessness.

"This is a win for our clients, this is a win for individuals who want to solicit funds," Conner said.

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