ACLU of Palm Beach May Seek Legal Action to Stop Panhandling Ban

ACLU of Palm Beach May Seek Legal Action to Stop Panhandling Ban
Photo by Alex Proimos via WIkimedia Commons

Earlier this week, Palm Beach County commissioners passed a panhandling ordinance making it illegal for someone to solicit for money or donations from a driver while on a county road. Which means anyone found panhandling will be fined $500 and maybe even see some jail time.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Palm Beach is planning to meet to discuss if any legal action should be taken to put a stop to the ordinance. The ACLU has filed lawsuits over similar ordinances in other states in recent years.

In 2013, the ACLU of Michigan sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that antibegging ordinances are unconstitutional and should be repealed.

In 2014, the ACLU took legal action and filed a lawsuit to block a similar ordinance from being passed in Colorado

Since panhandling is a First Amendment right, the group has argued, it might be difficult to uphold and enforce such a law, especially one that has vague specifics on who and who cannot be fined.

"One of the problems is that most panhandling ordinances allow for exceptions, such as firefighters asking for donations with their boots," ACLU of Palm Beach's Legal Chair Jim Greene tells New Times. "This ordinance appears to have done away with that. It's a bit overbroad in the way it's worded."

As Greene points out, this could be a problem with enforcement.

According to the agenda summary, the ordinance "will prohibit persons from displaying information, soliciting business or charitable contributions, and distributing materials or goods on county and state roads, in the unincorporated area of the county."

But, Greene says, this means not just a poor or needy person asking for money but anyone displaying information about their business. 

"The ordinance says 'no person should not go on the road with information,'" Greene says. "So if I’m driving a truck with my business information on the side or a cab with a political advertisement on it or a car with a bumper sticker, I’m violating the ordinance." 

Greene says the ACLU of Palm Beach's legal panel will meet in two weeks to discuss what actions to take. 

"We really want to monitor the enforcement," he says.

Meanwhile, the Palm Beach Sheriff's Office has said that it plans to be proactive in warning folks about the new ordinance.

"We will be educating first before citing," PBSO's Media Relations Bureau Director Teri Barbera tells New Times.

"You can't change the life of someone one dollar bill at a time, sticking it out the window," Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said on Tuesday following the vote. Bradshaw said PBSO would try to help the homeless as best as it could but added that the measure was about safety and not disrupting traffic in heavily congested areas.

"If we don't have people continually giving money out the window, we won't have people congregating at these corners," he said.

But Greene says the ordinance is less about congestion and more about a lack of empathy in helping people. The lone commissioner who voted against the ordinance, Melissa MacKinlay, pointed out that the majority of those who would be cited for breaking the ordinance are poor and couldn't afford to pay the fine. She offered a compromise solution to maybe fine motorists who stop to give change. 

"This ordinance is targeted towards panhandlers," Greene says. "People don't want to see the faces of poverty."

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