Unconstitutional anti-panhandling ordinance must be repealed, says ACLU.Newport News, VA— The Commonwealth’s Attorney dismissed charges of begging against a Newport News woman, apparently due to widespread recognition that the 1961 ordinance under which she was charged is unconstitutional.
The woman was convicted last November in General District Court under the ordinance, which prohibits all begging within the city. She appealed to the Circuit Court. ACLU attorneys were prepared to argue that the ordinance was unconstitutional, but prosecutors voluntarily dismissed the case.
“We’re pleased that the charges against our client were dropped," said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. "But as long as the ordinance remains on the books it can be used by police to hassle people they don’t like. The problem will not be resolved until Newport News gets rid of the ordinance altogether.”
According to news reports published last month, the City Attorney and the City Manager for Newport News support changing the ordinance.
“Our client, who was merely exercising her free speech right to ask for help -- which is the same free speech right that allows individuals to ask you to support their political candidate or to join their religion -- has been charged with violating this ordinance on several occasions,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.
“We have experienced a dramatic increase in anti-solicitation ordinances across the state in recent years, all of which seem to be precipitated by a desire to remove ‘undesirables’ from our line of vision, and none of which seems to have a legitimate public safety purpose,” Willis said. “Whether it is homeless people in Hampton and Newport News or Latino day laborers in Herndon and Woodbridge, the purpose is the same.”
A newer Newport News ordinance, which bans panhandling in roadways or medians, elicited the threat of legal challenge by the ACLU because it appeared to prevent individuals standing on sidewalks from soliciting motorists. However, when the Newport News City Attorney stated publicly that the ordinance would be enforced only against individuals who illegally entered traffic to panhandle, the ACLU decided to monitor the new law.
Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director, 804-644-8022