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Flagstaff, Arizona, to halt its crackdown on panhandling

The Flagstaff City Council agrees to settle a lawsuit that claimed an Arizona law against panhandling and the city's aggressive enforcement of it were unconstitutional.

September 24, 2013|By Cindy Carcamo
  • Flagstaff Police Cpl. Mike Rodriguez issues a citation to a homeless man who gave his name as James. The man was cited for camping within the city limits.
Flagstaff Police Cpl. Mike Rodriguez issues a citation to a homeless man… (Josh Biggs / Arizona Daily…)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — An Arizona city that led the nation in its aggressive stance on panhandling reversed course Tuesday night, setting in motion the apparent demise of a century-old state law that criminalized begging.

The Flagstaff City Council voted to settle a lawsuit launched this summer by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona on behalf of a 77-year-old woman who had been arrested after asking an undercover police officer for bus fare. The ACLU argued that the state law and Flagstaff's enforcement of it were unconstitutional.

The council agreed and voted unanimously to stop enforcing the statute, promising that city officials would no longer interfere with a person peacefully begging in public spaces. But the council left the door open to imposing other restrictions.

The ACLU lawsuit challenged a policy Flagstaff adopted six years ago to remove people from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on suspicion of loitering to beg. The city had invoked an Arizona statute that makes it a crime to beg in public spaces.

Flagstaff police had arrested an estimated 135 people on suspicion of loitering to beg during one year. In some cases, those people were jailed, said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who is serving as ACLU co-counsel in the lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for state Atty. Gen. Tom Horne said Monday he would not contest the ACLU's effort to have a federal judge declare the law unconstitutional.

The Flagstaff situation mirrors a national trend of localities and states enforcing or creating laws to deter panhandling and control the movements of the homeless, said Heather Maria Johnson, civil rights director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington.

Some states have passed similar statutes against begging. Others have invoked old laws, but Flagstaff's efforts were an example of extreme enforcement, Johnson said.

Courts across the country have ruled that laws against aggressive panhandling and harassment are constitutional. But they've also ruled that peaceful begging is protected by the Constitution and cannot be outlawed by states or municipalities.

In March, after the ACLU sued Colorado Springs, Colo., the city scrapped nearly every aspect of an anti-panhandling law it had passed four months earlier.

An anti-panhandling law in American Fork, Utah, met a similar fate after a homeless man filed suit. He had been cited several times for holding a sign on public sidewalks. The city agreed to pay him $750 in damages and more than $5,300 in attorney fees and court costs.

Salt Lake City officials took notice and stopped enforcing a statute that made it illegal to sit, stand or loiter on or near a roadway in order to solicit a ride, money, employment or other business. A federal judge later ruled that law unconstitutional.

Jordahl, the ACLU attorney, lauded the outcome in Flagstaff.

"We are pleased that the hundreds of desperately poor persons arrested under this unconstitutional law in the last several years will no longer face arrest and jailing for simply exercising their right to free speech in a peaceful manner," he said in a statement.

Flagstaff Police Chief Kevin Treadway said the city had opted to enforce the statute in response to hundreds of residents' complaints about people loitering or begging for money.

"In our city, this is really a prevalent issue," Treadway said. "We have citizens contacting us on a regular basis who are intimidated."

Flagstaff is a tourist hub, with shops, restaurants and university students. The city is also a gateway to the Grand Canyon, with several highways intersecting in town.

Tensions tend to peak during hot months, when the homeless population swells with transients who come to the mountain community to escape the sweltering desert heat.

Treadway said city officials were in the process of developing a new ordinance. This time, he said, it would target aggressive panhandlers.

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