Public outcry and the threat of litigation seems to have brought a reversal among the outgoing Montgomery City Council on its proposed amendment to the city’s panhandling ordinance. The ordinance passed earlier this year but Mayor Todd Strange did not sign or veto it. Later an amendment was proposed, but not adopted, that would have punished anyone giving a receiving a physical object, from money to an ice cream cone, through a vehicle window with jail time. The council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to reject the controversial amendment.
In July the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) sent a letter to Mayor Strange opposing the original panhandling ordinance and urging the Mayor to veto it. The SPLC contends the ordinance unfairly punishes people living in poverty and violates the First Amendment. The Ordinance subjects homeless people to jail time for soliciting money in any public place. Amendment language proposed in October would further criminalize anyone for handing any object through a car window. The ordinance included an exception to law enforcement, which often hand traffic tickets through the windows.
In its letter to Strange the SPLC cited court precedents that point out the courts have long held solicitations as a form of protected speech and that when governments prohibit speech based on its content that the prohibitions are subject to strict scrutiny, the court’s most exacting standard. The SPLC also said they would take the city to court over the issue.
“The panhandling ordinance and the proposed amendment are immoral and unconstitutional. They are immoral because we should offer a helping hand to those in need rather than placing people experiencing homelessness in handcuffs. They are unconstitutional because people have a First Amendment right to ask for help or to give it. Similar laws have been found unconstitutional across the county. SPLC will consider all of its options—including litigation—if the City adopts the amendment and does not rescind the original ordinance,” said Micah West, Sr. Staff Attorney for the SPLC.
The Montgomery Independent has already reported accounts of some panhandlers receiving mobile telephones with saved numbers to the SPLC in case those persons are arrested or harassed by police.
The SPLC organized a rally outside City Hall just before Tuesday’s council meeting with church leaders, advocates and attorneys warning the council not to pass the amendment to the ordinance and to repeal the ordinance as passed.
One major critic of the ordinance is incoming Mayor Steven Reed.
“(arresting panhandlers is a) Bad decision. We don’t want to criminalize homelessness. We don’t want to criminalize the least of these. We don’t want to be in the practice of arresting people who are not violent threats to our community. I would much rather our police department focus on people who are breaking into cars and houses and may be dangerous within our ranks and making them uncomfortable and finding and tracking existing crimes that have happened against property and people than dealing with a panhandler or someone who is having a hard time and criminalizing that. That is not how the city will go under my administration. If anything I would like to see us work more with our existing charitable organizations that are trying to help the homeless with various re-entry programs and help them get on the right track. But also looking at other ways that deal with the causes of homelessness and see if we can be more proactive in preventing that and minimizing that. I just believe that focusing our police department on that area is a bad decision and a bad use of our already limited resources and manpower,” Reed said.
Of course while there is often overlap it is important to remember that not all panhandlers are homeless and not all homeless people are panhandlers. But all are for the most part taxpayers. Those panhandlers that do have homes are paying property tax either directly or through their rent and virtually everyone who makes a retail purchase is paying sales tax.