Pensacola

ACLU files suit against City of Pensacola over panhandling ordinance

May 17, 2017

Mayor Ashton Hayward will be hiring more attorneys. This will be a nice test of the City Attorney’s legal acumen and the mayor’s decision to proceed with the ordinance over the objections of local groups and the ACLU.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – May 17, 2017

PENSACOLA, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has today filed a lawsuit challenging an ordinance passed last week by the Pensacola City Council which would prohibit individuals from asking for donations in much of downtown Pensacola. The lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida states that the anti-panhandling ordinance, set to go into effect on Thursday, May 18, violates the free speech and due process rights of those who would be impacted by the law.

“We repeatedly warned the city council that this ordinance was unconstitutional,” stated Jacqueline Azis, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida. “The city council can’t outlaw certain kinds of speech just because hearing it could make some people uncomfortable. Courts throughout the country, including in Florida, have been abundantly clear about the unconstitutionality of these laws. We had worked to avoid litigation, but when this cruel and unjust law was passed, we had to take action before it went into effect to protect the rights of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, street performers, and charitable groups.”

In an April 7 letter to the city council, the ACLU of Florida warned that similar anti-panhandling ordinances “in Florida and throughout the nation… have been consistently declared unconstitutional by the courts.” The city council nevertheless approved the ordinance by a 4-3 vote on May 11.

The ACLU is representing two individuals – a diabetic former nurse who solicits donations in downtown, and a street performer who plays the guitar – as well as the local volunteer chapter of Food Not Bombs, a volunteer service organization which puts out a jar for donations in downtown. On their behalf, the ACLU is asking the court to not only find the anti-panhandling ordinance to be unconstitutional, but to issue an order preventing the law from being enforced before it goes into effect.

“A person doesn’t lose their right to free speech or due process simply because they need help getting by, and not all problems that a city faces can be solved by law enforcement,” stated ACLU of Florida northern regional director Sara Latshaw. “By treating needy members of the community or charity organizations like a nuisance, the city council fails to address the needs of its citizens. Rather than violate people’s rights with a policy they knew has been repeatedly found unconstitutional, the city council should work to find viable solutions for the issue of poverty in our community.”

The ACLU has successfully challenged similar panhandling laws in multiple states, and is currently involved in legal challenges to anti-panhandling laws in cities including Cleveland, Ohio and Belton, Missouri. The ACLU of Florida has also been involved in litigation across the state challenging policies which criminalize homelessness and violate the rights of homeless individuals.

A copy of the complaint filed today is available here: https://aclufl.org/resources/food-not-bombs-v-city-of-penscola-complaint/

A copy of the brief in support of the motions for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction are available here: http://aclufl.org/resources/food-not-bombs-v-pensacola-pi-and-tro-brief/

A copy of the April 7 letter to the city council is available here: https://aclufl.org/resources/letter-to-pensacola-city-council-re-panhandling-ordinance/

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  • CJ Lewis May 17, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    In multiple places in the complaint, the ACLU incorrectly cited the law it is challenging. The law being challenged is Section 8-1-28 “not” Section 8-2-28. Proofread!

    The ACLU’s complaint filed on May 17 describes Tommi Lyter as the “Chief of Police.” The City Council confirmed Lyter’s appointment on May 11. On May 12, the PNJ reported, “Lyter will be sworn in to the position on May 26.” I believe he will be sworn into office in a church outside of city limits. Perhaps The Satanic Temple will file a lawsuit over that point too. More importantly, under state law, does a Chief of Police assume their appointed or elected office (some Police Chiefs in Florida are elected) before being sworn into office?

    I find it surprising that Lyter is listed by name with no mention of his direct supervisor City Administrator Eric Olson and his boss Mayor Ashton Hayward. In an unrelated Tampa legal case, cited by City Attorney Jim Messer in 2011, that court found that it is the Mayor who supervises the Police Department not the Police Chief. In fact, that is what it says in Pensacola’s City Charter too. If Lyter has to be spotlighted by name here, so should Olson and Hayward and maybe Council President Brian Spencer too.

    Unexplainably, the ACLU complaint challenges the constitutionality of Section 8-1-28 “Regulation of Conduct in the Downtown Visitors’ District” but does not challenge Section 8-1-25 “Panhandling” that applies citywide to include in the Downtown Visitors’ District. Section 8-1-28 provides for civil citations but Section 8-1-25 provides for jail time and/or a fine. The two laws differ in one main aspect – Section 8-1-28 expressly outlaws passive conduct in 30 blocks of the city whereas Section 8-1-25 put in place in 2013 and not actively enforced to date expressly describes the exact same conduct as being legal citywide.

    By the way, it is ironic that in another post on Rick’s Blog that we read about the Pensacola Fire Department engaging in conduct inside city limits that seems to involve the solicitation of donations in the roadway for a charity. Such conduct would appear to be prohibited citywide by Section 8-1-25 Panhandling. It is hard to understand why one group (city firefighters) are allowed to engage in such conduct while an individual or a not-for-profit like the Salvation Army or the Waterfront Mission is prohibited from doing the same. Whatever the law, it should be fairly enforced across the board.

  • George Hawthorne May 17, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    How much is this going to cost the taxpayers?