Panhandle away

ACLU says preliminary injunction ruling is first in California and could force other local governments to reconsider similar ordinances

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the July 12, 2018, issue.

Dealing a severe blow to the city of Sacramento’s efforts to make homelessness less visible around the downtown core, a federal judge this month froze strict panhandling restrictions adopted last year, writing that his preliminary injunction “prevents the enforcement of an unconstitutional law.”

In ordering city officials to immediately stop enforcing a policy against asking for donations in many parts of Sacramento, U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. determined the city was likely to lose the case on free speech grounds and that it had “less restrictive means” to protect its interests.

The Sacramento City Council approved its so-called aggressive panhandling ordinance in November 2017, after downtown business interests complained about confronting more begging outside their storefronts. But panhandling complaints actually dropped by almost 30 percent when Mayor Darrell Steinberg was defending the need for stricter enforcement, according to records obtained by SN&R. Through January 1-November 6 of last year, the Sacramento Police Department was contacted 666 times about panhandlers. During that same period in 2016, officers fielded 914 such disturbance calls.

Under the ordinance council members adopted, simply “approaching” a pedestrian can be interpreted as aggressive or intrusive solicitation. So can asking for money without shouting distance of banks or ATMs, bus- and light-rail stops, gas stations and outdoor dining areas. City leaders also made it illegal to solicit on roadway median strips, and near the driveways of shopping centers, retail and other business establishments—essentially anywhere a person in need might be seen by someone with money.

James Lee “Faygo” Clark, a homeless activist and frequent council critic, joined the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness and Sacramento Homeless Organizing Committee, or SHOC, in challenging the local panhandling law on constitutional grounds this past April. Clark regularly panhandles—or “spangs”—outside of the Natural Foods Co-op on R and 28th streets, the plaintiffs’ federal complaint states, “because it is difficult to obtain healthy food while being homeless and he obtains nutritious food and other donations from the store’s patrons.” But because the Co-op has three driveways, is on a thoroughfare and is within 30 feet of a Sacramento Regional Transit bus stop, standing on the sidewalk holding paper signs requesting donations, as Clark does, is considered illegal under the city’s law.

In his July 5 ruling, Judge England agreed with plaintiffs that the city went too far.

Sean Richmond, a senior deputy city attorney, confirmed the judge’s order enjoined the entire ordinance and said the city would not appeal the ruling. But, in an email, he indicated that city officials would return to the drawing board, “to determine if it can be amended such that it does pass analysis by the court.”

Several local governments in the region have cracked down on homeless people asking for donations. The Davis City Council was one of the most recent political bodies to outlaw most panhandling. Other anti-solicitation ordinances have been adopted in Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove and Galt.

The ACLU actually represented SHOC in an earlier legal challenge when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors exempted charities from tough, new solicitation restrictions in the summer of 2014. The ACLU argued that carve-out was discriminatory because it favored one speech over another. But the county avoided an injunction by removing the exemption from its ordinance.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys signaled that their victory against the city of Sacramento could set a precedent that ripples across the state.

“The court’s decision is the first in California to make clear that the government must meet a high burden to justify anti-panhandling ordinances or other similar ordinances,” Abre’ Conner, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, said in a written statement. “The City of Sacramento’s ordinance failed to meet that Constitutional threshold. Instead of criminalizing homelessness, cities should act with compassion and allocate resources to those who need them most.”