First Amendment

Anti-begging law in Arizona knocked down by federal judge

A federal judge in Arizona has overturned the state’s 25-year-old statute for bringing a charge of loitering if “in a public place to beg.” The ruling (PDF) concerned the city of Flagstaff’s five-year-old policy seeking to clear panhandlers out of certain downtown areas by arresting them on suspicion of loitering to beg, the Arizona Republic reported.

Flagstaff’s so-called “Operation 40” effort was like some others around the country in recent years seeking to control panhandlers and greater numbers of homeless in certain areas. Some courts have upheld laws concerning aggressive panhandling and harassment, but not peaceful begging, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The lead plaintiff in the Arizona case, Marlene Walker, is a 4-foot-8-inch tall, 77-year-old Hopi woman who would come downtown and sometimes ask strangers for bus fare home. Walker was arrested in 2010 after asking an undercover police officer for $1, according to the complaint (PDF).

The complaint, brought by the ACLU Foundation of Arizona and Flagstaff lawyer Mikkel Jordahl, noted that the arrests for loitering to beg did not require “aggressive, disorderly, dangerous or other problematic conduct by the person seeking money, and may be based on a peaceful request for a donation.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued in the complaint that the law against requests for money or food is selective, and that if someone in a public place sought electoral votes, new members for an organization or recommended eating at a particular restaurant “delivered in the same manner or tone as that for money would not result in arrest or prosecution under the provision.”

Plaintiffs also included two other panhandlers and the organization Food Not Bombs, a volunteer organization providing meals for the poor and hungry in Flagstaff.

The suit was filed in June. In September, the Flagstaff City Council voted unanimously to end the enforcement policy and joined the plaintiffs in agreeing to the judge’s injunctive order, the Arizona Daily Sun reported at the time. The judge ordered the city to also give notice of the order to all law enforcement agencies in the state by posting it on an email discussion list maintained by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. The judge will award fees and costs to the plaintiffs lawyers.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.