City axes law after suit filed

It decides to wait, see how others deal with panhandling

FORT SMITH -- City directors have repealed the ordinance that grew out of their attempt to address panhandling after the American Civil Liberties Union called it unconstitutional.

With the repeal of ordinance 34-17 on Tuesday, Arkansas Municipal League attorney Michael Mosley said he will file a motion in federal court to dismiss the lawsuit filed by a man who claimed the ordinance violated his First Amendment free speech rights by stopping him from panhandling.

Mosley, who represents the city in the lawsuit along with Fort Smith's attorney Colby Roe, recommended that city directors repeal the city's ordinance and wait to see how a similar lawsuit against Rogers Police Chief Wayne Minor plays out.

Glynn Dilbeck and Shane Cook are plaintiffs in the Minor lawsuit in Rogers. Dilbeck is the sole plaintiff in a similar lawsuit that the ACLU filed against Fort Smith Police Chief Nathaniel Clark.

The ACLU, through plaintiffs Michael Rodgers and Todd Reid, is suing Hot Springs Police Chief Jason Stachey over Hot Springs' ordinance. The complaint claims Rodgers' free speech rights were violated because the ordinance did not allow him to panhandle, and Reid's free speech rights were violated because he was not allowed to donate to panhandlers.

Neither Rogers nor Hot Springs plan to repeal their respective ordinances, according to officials.

Even without the ordinance in Fort Smith, Mosley said, the city could rely on state law that makes it unlawful for people to be in the streets outside of crosswalks or crossing signs.

Bettina Brownstein of Little Rock -- an ACLU attorney handling the three lawsuits -- said that with Fort Smith's ordinance repealed, she could not oppose the motion to dismiss the case.

"It was a smart move on Fort Smith's part," Brownstein said. "We think we're going to win on Rogers."

Mosley and attorneys for Rogers and Fort Smith disagree. Rogers' senior staff attorney Jennifer Waymack said the Rogers ordinance is content-neutral, deals with public safety and not panhandling, and does not violate Dilbeck or Cook's rights.

"We're in a good place," she said. "We have a good constitutional ordinance."

At least one other city believes in Rogers' ordinance. Van Buren aldermen unanimously passed an ordinance Monday that included wording that closely follows that of Rogers' ordinance.

Van Buren officials were not available Tuesday for comment.

Fort Smith passed ordinance 34-17 in July. Dilbeck had sued Fort Smith over an earlier panhandling ordinance. He said that both ordinances squelched his ability to panhandle and violated his free speech rights.

Ordinance 34-17 did not mention panhandling or begging. In fact, in passing the ordinance, the city directors also voted to remove the word "begging" from another ordinance.

The ordinance prohibited people from being in the street other than at crosswalks or bus stops, with exceptions made for police, emergency personnel or authorized maintenance workers who have reasons for being in the streets.

Rogers' ordinance, passed Dec. 12, bars anyone from approaching an operating, occupied vehicle in the street in a manner that could cause injury, property damage or impede traffic flow.

Hot Springs' ordinance, passed Dec. 5, forbids people to "interact physically" with the occupant of a motor vehicle that is in operation.

Also, no occupant of a motor vehicle in operation on a public street may "physically interact" with a pedestrian.

Even though none of the ordinances in litigation in federal court mentions panhandling or begging in the texts, Brownstein said Tuesday that the ordinances had the intent to punish her clients for panhandling.

"They're not home-free just because they don't use the word," she said.

The lawsuits are in various stages of litigation.

State Desk on 03/04/2018

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