ACLU of Virginia represents individual charged with violating old law prohibiting all panhandling in city limits

Newport News, VA— According to news reports published today, the City Attorney and the City Manager for Newport News support changing a 1961 ordinance prohibiting all panhandling in the city.
The ACLU of Virginia has been providing legal representation to a woman charged with violating the forty-year old law, but City Attorney Stuart Katz told the Daily Press yesterday he believes the ordinance is unconstitutional and that he will be asking the court to dismiss the case.  City Manager Neil Morgan added that, in light of a new solicitation ordinance passed last summer, the city ought to repeal the old ordinance.
The new solicitation 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 Police Department 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.
“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.
“Even if it becomes standard operating procedure for prosecutors to drop charges brought under this ordinance, as long as it is on the books police can use it to hassle people they don’t like,” added Willis. “It is time for Newport News to get rid of the ordinance altogether.”
“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.  Whether it is homeless people in Hampton and Newport News or Latino day laborers in Herndon and Woodbridge, the purpose is the same.”
“In Herndon, last year, the members of the town council showed their true colors when they proposed an ordinance that would allow firefighters and high school clubs, but not day laborers, to solicit motorists,” said Willis.  “Fortunately, we were able to convince them not to pass the ordinance in that form.”

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022