ACLU sues Boise over panhandling law

November 4, 2013 

The Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed a federal lawsuit Monday morning, claiming the city of Boise's new panhandling ordinance violates the U.S. Constitution.

“This ordinance is nothing more than the government telling us what we can say and where we can say it,” said Richard Eppink, the ACLU of Idaho's legal director. “Not only does it offend the Constitution by banning protected free speech and expression in public areas in Boise, but it also unfairly burdens struggling families in our community who need help. Military veterans, individuals with disabilities, and the least among us, who are forced to pray for alms in the streets, will be pushed out of view.”

The city of Boise responded to the lawsuit with a brief statement: "The ordinance was carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech. The City will defend the ordinance and is confident it will withstand this legal challenge."

City Councilman David Eberle, who voted to pass the law, said he wanted to read the lawsuit and talk it over with the city's legal team before responding. Councilwoman Lauren McLean was the only member to vote against the law. She said Monday she wanted a chance to look over the lawsuit before responding to it. Efforts to contact other City Council members were unsuccessful.

Boise's Anti-Solicitation Ordinance, which passed the City Council by a 3-1 vote on Sept. 17, seeks to eliminate aggressive panhandling within city limits. The law will take effect in January. It defines aggressive solicitation as “intentionally making any non-consensual physical contact with another person, following the person being solicited with intent to intimidate into giving, continuing to solicit within five feet of a person who has expressed a negative response to the solicitation with intent to intimidate into giving, obstructing the safe or free passage of the person being solicited or (making) any threatening statement or gesture intended to intimidate the person into giving.”

Asking people for money will also be illegal in the following circumstances:

• in any public transportation vehicle

• from people waiting in line

• on private property where “solicitation prohibited” is posted

• from roads or from a vehicle on a road when entering the roadway is necessary to accept the donation

• from pedestrians crossing a road

• within public parking garages

• within 20 feet of an ATM, financial institution, sidewalk cafe, mobile or street vendor on a sidewalk, public restrooms and portable toilets, bus stops, taxi stands, valet stations and parking pay boxes or stations (not including parking meters that serve one or two spaces)

However, the ordinance allows people to stand or sit on a sidewalk and ask for money with a sign that doesn’t address a specific person.

A first violation of the panhandling ordinance would be an infraction, unless the act met the criteria of "aggressive solicitation," in which case it would be a misdemeanor.

The ordinance came under fire from homeless advocates and civil liberties defenders. It has the support of the Downtown Boise Association.

The proposal for the ordinance came after local business owners began complaining about the increased number of panhandlers and related disturbances.

The ACLU and the NLCHP say the ordinance will instead subject donation-seekers to discriminatory enforcement and constitutes a violation of the basic human rights of Boise's "most vulnerable residents."

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