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Making a case for accused beggars

N.Y. agencies that used an unconstitutional law face a class-action suit.

July 25, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — A federal judge granted class-action status Tuesday to thousands of suspected panhandlers arrested or forced off streets in the last 15 years by police who used a law that was declared unconstitutional.

In a ruling critical of police and prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin also made defendants of 553 law enforcement agencies in 62 counties statewide in a lawsuit brought on behalf of anybody illegally subjected to the law.

In October 1992, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet in Manhattan ruled that a state law violated the 1st Amendment when it allowed the arrest of anyone who "loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place" to beg. That ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court.

Scheindlin has repeatedly expressed her dismay that New York City has continued enforcing the law after it was ruled unconstitutional, though the city recently has insisted it has taken steps to stop.

The judge said that certifying the class action was the only way to effectively prevent the law from being enforced statewide.

"As a consequence of being poor and homeless, most absent plaintiffs are uninformed, disenfranchised and without the means to bring individual actions in the hope of having their convictions overturned or their extant warrants vacated," she wrote.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Matthew D. Brinckerhoff said the decision to grant class-action status meant "we will finally be able to put an end to this after 15 years."

He said the class probably consisted of 5,000 to 10,000 people subjected to the law after it was declared unconstitutional.

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