Alabama Judge Rules State Panhandling Laws Unconstitutional

panhandling Photo Source: Adobe Stock Image

An Alabama federal judge has struck down state laws against panhandling, citing that the laws are unconstitutional. After the ruling, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency conceded that such laws were a violation of an individual's Constitutional right to free speech, ending a 2020 lawsuit.

The preliminary injunction was handed down on March 10 by U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins. The ruling ends a 2020 lawsuit that challenged the state's laws on panhandling and begging in public. The lawsuit was filed by several advocacy groups including The Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU of Alabama, and the National Homelessness Law Center. The advocacy groups represented plaintiffs who were arrested or ticketed for panhandling in Montgomery. According to the lawsuit, the laws helped perpetuate the notion of criminalizing poverty.

Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, shared after Judge Watkins’ ruling, “The injunction is a victory for marginalized groups that find themselves in tough economic circumstances and in need of help.” Faulks adds, “Criminalizing the solicitation of charitable donations does nothing to advance public safety. Instead, it multiplies already existing barriers for people experiencing homelessness. This can include unaffordable fines and fees, the loss of their freedom through incarceration and a criminal record – all of which are obstacles to obtaining housing and economic security.”

State attorneys representing Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Hal Taylor also shared, “The First Amendment was not originally understood to require the government to permit panhandling on public ... even so, that begging is entitled to First Amendment protection is currently the law of this circuit.”

Despite this recent ruling, state lawmakers are committed to pushing back against panhandling. Their latest efforts will be to target loitering on state highways, which is an avenue panhandlers tend to seek out.

Republican Representative Reed Ingram plans to bring forward a new bill for debate to the legislative committee as early as next week. His new bill circumvents the latest ruling as it would seek to increase the penalties individuals who loiter on public highways will face. Ingram shares that his legislation is “a public safety bill,” adding, “We're going to make the road safer.”

Ingram has emphasized that the proposed legislation would offer solutions to individuals who loiter on state highways. “We want to find out if this person has mental health issues, drug issues whatever it may be so we can find a way to help,” adding that the bill would allow responding police officers to offer individuals transportation to a shelter as an option.

The city of Montgomery was also named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit. However, the city settled its involvement in the case in November. Montgomery agreed to stop arresting or ticketing individuals who violated the state's panhandling laws.

According to the lawsuit, this city came under fire for adopting the state laws after hundreds of citations were issued under the state statutes between 2018 and 2020. The laws in question include one that prohibits loitering in public places for the purpose of begging and another that prohibits standing on a highway or roadway for the purpose of begging.

In 2019, the Montgomery City Council adopted a separate city ordinance that would tack on jail time for individuals who were panhandling. While the ordinance was never enforced, the council ultimately voted to repeal it after stark criticism from homeless advocacy groups.

Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti is a postgraduate at James Madison University where she studied English and Education. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and two little girls. Although she considers herself a workaholic, when she’s not juggling work, you can be sure to find her traveling the world with her little family.
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