ACLU calls Baltimore panhandling bill unconstitutional

BALTIMORE - A bill to further restrict panhandling in downtown Baltimore is both unconstitutional and a violation of a consent decree in previous litigation concerning the treatment of homeless people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

The groups have expressed their concerns about the bill, which is expected to be introduced to the City Council's Judiciary Committee on Monday, citing in a letter to the council that provisions such as a prohibition on soliciting donations in commercial districts would violate the First Amendment and that courts have repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment protects such solicitations.

The letter notes that the City's Law Department and the advocacy groups agree on the applicable legal rules, though disagree on what those rules mean with respect to the specific proposals in the bill.

The groups take issue with the Law Department's contention that the prohibition on soliciting outside of businesses can be sustained as a public safety measure, noting that persons do not typically enter or exit business with cash or credit cards in hand, and that there are no studies showing that people are more vulnerable to crime when entering or exiting a business, as opposed to anywhere else in the City.

The letter also notes that in a 1994 settlement of lawsuit filed by the ACLU challenging the harassment of homeless people under the City's solicitation laws, the City agreed that "panhandling" was speech protected by the First Amendment, and agreed to refrain from asking persons soliciting assistance to move along unless they were violating some other valid ordinance.

"As long as asking for money is speech protected by the First Amendment, and even the City agrees that it is, the First Amendment prohibits laws like this that seek to have homeless and destitute people live by one set of rules governing their speech, while more favored speakers live under another," said David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland in a statement.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said now she'll propose limiting the buffers to places where people are most vulnerable , where they're dining outside or paying for parking or entering pedestrian bridges.

"It is your freedom to be in the public area," said Spector to ABC2 News earlier this week. "There are also some protections that we should have from people being aggressive or in our face."


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