ACLU sues Parkersburg over panhandling ordinance

PARKERSBURG – The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is suing the city of Parkersburg over an ordinance outlawing panhandling.

Mayor Bob Newell said Tuesday he expects a federal judge to issue a permanent injunction this week on the city’s 2005 ordinance that prohibits the solicitation of funds at multiple busy intersections in the city. Newell said a 1957 ordinance, which was used to cite a panhandler last year, was repealed by city council.

According to a press release from ACLUWV, in September the organization filed suit in federal court on behalf of Charles Kelly, a disabled veteran who had been cited and fined under city ordinance 347.28. According to the ACLUWV, Kelly had stood in public places carrying a sign that read, “Disabled Veteran, Please Help. God Bless.”

Under the city ordinance it is a crime to solicit charitable donations on public sidewalks and pedestrian walkways.

According to the ACLUWV, “the complaint charges that Parkersburg police officers enforce the ordinance to prevent needy individuals from exercising their freedom of expression under the guise of safety concerns.”

“The ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment,” ACLUWV staff attorney Sarah Rogers said in the release. “However, the Parkersburg police are going well beyond that. Prosecuting people because they are poor or homeless and in need of charity is not only wrong, it’s illegal. The United States Supreme Court has clearly stated that the First Amendment protects requests for charity.”

In November 2012, the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city seeking records about citations to individuals or organizations for soliciting funds without a permit.

Newell said he was asked to testify in federal court on Oct. 9 about the origins of the city’s solicitation ordinances. Newell said the issue is twofold: An out-of-date ordinance and one intended to promote safety.

Newell said the 1957 ordinance would allow panhandling if a person was approved by a board of solicitation, an entity that was never in place.

“One of those people (panhandling) got cited under the solicitation section, which hadn’t been enforced for a long time,” he said. “It required a board of solicitors, which the city has never had.”

Following the ACLUWV request for information, city council voted to repeal the 1957 ordinance. Newell said the federal court has been looking at the 2005 ordinance, which he believes will be blocked by the court.

“The judge issued a temporary injunction five days prior to when I was in court,” Newell said. “He extended that temporary injunction another five days. I expect today or tomorrow we’ll hear if he grants a permanent injunction.”

Newell said the issue with the 2005 ordinance is its narrow scope. The ordinance refers specifically to solicitation of money, but ignores other forms of solicitation, which Newell believes would extend to people carrying roadside advertising or even political candidates waving to passing cars.

“The ordinance targets money. Therefore, he (the judge) is saying, and I don’t disagree with him, the ordinance is not content-neutral,” he said.

Newell said the ordinance also was never intended to discourage panhandlers, but rather keep children out of the streets.

“It had more to do with pee wee football or cheerleaders. Cars would stop at an intersection and these kids would go out to get money from people. Suddenly the light turns green and it was dangerous to have those kids out there,” he said. “It was never intended to stop panhandling, because at the time we really didn’t have an issue with panhandling.”

Newell said the city will begin looking at “aggressive panhandling ordinances” to see how those municipalities handle the issue.

“What we will have to do is find an ordinance that is content-neutral,” he said.