ACLU of New Mexico Wins Temporary Halt to Albuquerque's Anti-Panhandling Ordinance

Affiliate: ACLU of New Mexico
January 16, 2004 12:00 am

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ALBUQUERQUE — State District Court Judge William F. Lang today granted the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico’s request for a temporary restraining order barring Albuquerque from implementing an anti-panhandling ordinance that was to go into effect on January 21.

“This is a small victory, but an important one,” said Peter Simonson, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Mexico. “People have a constitutionally protected right to ask for money on the street as long as they don’t threaten anyone’s safety.”

The new panhandling ordinance, passed by the Albuquerque City Council at the behest of business owners in the downtown and Nob Hill areas, would prohibit anyone from asking for money on the street in those districts and would also prohibit all panhandling from dusk until dawn in all other parts of the city.

Among its other provisions, the ordinance would prohibit people from soliciting in public parking lots, continuing to solicit after receiving a negative response, and soliciting in groups of more than one.

The ACLU lawsuit contends that the new law violates free speech and due process rights under the New Mexico State Constitution.

“The restrictions on panhandling are so numerous and complex that even if someone were aware of all 29 restrictions, they would be hard pressed to identify a legal spot to solicit,” said ACLU attorney Hope Eckert. “Furthermore, homeless people aren’t the only ones who will be affected. Any organization that asks for donations on the street — like Greenpeace or churches — will fall under the law’s prohibitions. In fact, the language of the ordinance is so vague that signature-gathering or soliciting anything of value, even asking to borrow someone’s cell phone, could be construed as panhandling.”

Scott Cameron, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, noted, “Albuquerque laws are already selectively and overzealously enforced against the homeless population in order to move them out of sight. The anti-panhandling ordinance only continues this trend.”

Eckert, Cameron, and Jane Gagne, Co-Legal Director of the ACLU of New Mexico, represent plaintiff Kenneth Seagroves, a resident of Albuquerque who, the ACLU’s complaint describes, “panhandles in order to gain supplemental income as needed to buy food and pay for other necessary expenses.”

Next week the court will schedule an evidentiary hearing on the ACLU’s request for a more permanent block to the law.

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