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ACLU Settles Suit Over Cleveland Panhandling Ordinances

File photo from downtown Cleveland. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Cleveland has settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Ohio over the city's panhandling ordinances. It makes for another victory for the ACLU after a similar suit prompted a change in Akron. A federal judge dismissed the Cleveland suit last week, and the city will pay $29,000 as part of the settlement.

Attorney Joe Mead tells ideastream's Tony Ganzer that the monetary settlement was not the goal of the suit. 

MEAD: “The goal of the suit was to get rid of the ordinances, and we were happy that the city actually repealed the laws, recognizing that they are constitutionally objectionable because they restrict people’s free-speech right to ask for a donation.”

GANZER: “So you filed the suit on behalf of a homeless advocacy group, and one particular person who was panhandling and felt targeted by these laws, and actually suffered injury because of them?”

MEAD: “That’s correct. The individual panhandler was arrested several times, or rather charged with a crime of panhandling illegally, and he was harassed by police even after the lawsuit was filed. So unlike the suit against the city of Akron, Cleveland initially did not repeal its law. It continued to enforce it. When we sued the city of Akron over a similar panhandling law in Akron, the city quickly repealed the law and sought to settle the case.”

GANZER: “Was there any substantial difference between the law that was on the books in Akron, and the ones in Cleveland?”

MEAD: “There were minor differences. I think the biggest difference was that Akron required all panhandlers register with police, which Cleveland’s law did not have. But they contained a lot of similar provisions, basically limiting where on the sidewalk you could panhandle, how close to buildings and how close to different landmarks…”

GANZER: “According to the lawsuit, Cleveland police had issued I think the number was more than five thousand tickets for panhandling over the decade, is that right?”

MEAD: “Yep, that is correct, it was more than five thousand citations. And so every one of those citations is for often times very innocent behavior—simply having a sign that expresses a need. And every one of those citations could lead to a criminal conviction, which makes it harder for people to escape poverty.”

GANZER: “Where does this leave the act of panhandling in Cleveland now? Are individuals free to ask for money anywhere in the city of Cleveland? Are there any restrictions on people in Cleveland?”

MEAD: “So there are other laws that apply to panhandling. So for example, laws against assault and certain types of menacing prohibit people from being overly aggressive in the way that they panhandle, or do anything. It’s not just panhandling, those laws apply to any sort of behavior that crosses the line, where you’re physically touching people who don’t want it. There are also laws against trespassing.  What is gone, however, are laws that single-out people asking for help for special criminal restrictions.”

GANZER: “So from the perspective of the ACLU, do you think this issue is kind of dealt with?”

MEAD: “We’re really encouraged to see Cleveland and Akron [and others] recognize that these anti-panhandling ordinances are both unconstitutional and really not helpful.  But yeah we’re going to remain vigilant, other cities that continue to have laws like these and enforce them…you know all cities need to be really careful and thoughtful in how they respond to people experiencing homelessness. Trying to arrest your way out of poverty is not a good approach, and all cities need to make sure that the laws they have on the books are fair and are applied fairly.”

Tony Ganzer has reported from Phoenix to Cairo, and was the host of 90.3's "All Things Considered." He was previously a correspondent with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, covering issues like Swiss banks, Parliament, and refugees. He earned an M.A. in International Relations (University of Leicester); and a B.Sc. in Journalism (University of Idaho.) He speaks German, and a bit of French.