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Judge strikes down Alabama laws against panhandling

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge last week struck down Alabama laws against panhandling, ruling that the statues are unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins issued the order Friday permanently enjoining the state from enforcing the laws against begging and pedestrian solicitation. The ruling came after the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency conceded that the appellate court ruled similar laws violate a person’s right to free speech.

The decision ended litigation filed in 2020 challenging the laws on behalf of people who had been ticketed or jailed for panhandling in Montgomery. Legal groups that filed the lawsuit said the laws criminalized poverty.

“The injunction is a victory for marginalized groups that find themselves in tough economic circumstances and in need of help,” Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said in a statement about the litigation.

“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 lawyers conceded in an earlier court filing that the judge was bound by a decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals finding such statues as a violation of free speech rights.

“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,” state attorneys representing Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Hal Taylor wrote.

Alabama lawmakers in the coming weeks are expected to take up new legislation aimed at preventing people from loitering on public highways, which could be a new avenue to target panhandlers.

The bill by Republican Rep. Reed Ingram of Pike Road would increase the penalties for loitering on the side of state highways. “This bill is a public safety bill. We’re going after making the roads safer,” Ingram said.

Ingram said he expects to adjust the legislation to spell out that the officer has the option to take the person to a shelter. “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,” he said.

Ingram said he expects the bill to be debated by a legislative committee as soon as next week.

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