For Immediate Release
FLAGSTAFF – The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona today filed a lawsuit on behalf of an elderly Hopi woman who was arrested for begging in Flagstaff and a volunteer-run organization that feeds the hungry, claiming the City of Flagstaff’s effort to rid city streets of beggars is unconstitutional and criminalizes peaceful panhandling in public places.
“Begging is not a crime,” said ACLU of Arizona Legal Director Dan Pochoda. “To appease local business interests, Flagstaff has sacrificed the fundamental rights of individuals and is throwing people in jail simply for asking for a dollar or two for food. Numerous courts throughout the country have ruled that peacefully asking for a donation in a public area is protected speech under the First Amendment.”
Today’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of 77-year-old Marlene Baldwin, who is 4’8’’tall, disabled and losing her eyesight. She was arrested on February 22nd for “loitering to beg” after asking an undercover Flagstaff Police Officer if he could spare $1.25 for bus fare.
In addition to Baldwin, the ACLU also is representing Robert George and Andrew R. Wilkenson, both of whom were threatened with arrest and are now afraid to exercise their right to peacefully solicit, and Food Not Bombs, a volunteer-run organization that regularly feeds the homeless in local city parks. Several of its members have been arrested for requesting donations from passersby.
"While anti-aggressive panhandling laws banning harassing solicitations have been found constitutional, neither the state nor cities can legally outlaw peaceful begging,” said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who is serving as co-counsel in today’s lawsuit. “When the most downtrodden among us are arrested and punished for the peaceful content of their speech, then none of our free speech rights are guaranteed."
In 2008, the City of Flagstaff adopted a policy in cooperation with local businesses – called “Operation 40” – to remove targeted individuals from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on “loitering to beg” charges. Defendants Flagstaff City Attorney Michelle D’Andrea and Police Chief Kevin Treadway utilized an antiquated state statute – A.R.S. § 13-2905(A)(3) – that makes it a crime to “loiter to beg” in all public places, including sidewalks, thoroughfares and parks, at all times during the day or night. Between June 2012 and May 2013, 135 arrests were made by the Flagstaff Police Department under this state statute.
The ACLU is arguing that the City of Flagstaff is violating people’s free speech rights by arresting them for peacefully soliciting donations in public. The lawsuit also argues the state statute itself is unconstitutional and must be enjoined by the Court because it is directed at and criminalizes constitutionally-protected expression.
The Arizona Court of Appeals and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have struck down similar laws attempting to outlaw the solicitation of money, including a Phoenix city ordinance.
Other attorneys on this case are Kelly Flood of the ACLU of Arizona and Robert S. Malone of Flagstaff. To read today’s complaint, click here.