Lawsuit Over Panhandling Ordinance Heads Back to Court

February 21, 2013

A lawsuit over the panhandling ordinance in Charlottesville will head back to a courtroom, after a three-judge panel ruled unanimously Thursday that a judge should not have tossed out the lawsuit without hearing any evidence.

Joan Fenton owns two retail stores on the Downtown Mall and says the panhandlers have an impact on her bottom line Fenton supports the ordinance. "I would like to see it upheld," she said. "There are millions of places on the mall where people can ask for money and I don't believe there's a case where someone who was using those locations and has lost any of their income."

Charlottesville City Council unanimously passed the panhandling ordinance in 2010, restricting where people can solicit money on the mall.

"The restrictions put in place left 95 percent of the mall open for solicitation," said Dave Norris, who served as mayor when the ordinance passed and is a current city councilor.

But the Charlottesville attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of five homeless men, says the case isn't about panhandling, it's about free speech.

"The case isn't about panhandling, it's about the first amendment," said Jeffrey Fogel, the Charlottesville attorney involved in the lawsuit. "It turns out that asking for a donation is protected by the first amendment. It's no difference when a person is asking for help for themselves."

Business owners on the downtown mall say the city should be watching out for their bottom lines, too, not just beggars or the homeless.

"You see the same four or five guys out here every day," said Mark Brown, the owner of the Main Street Arena. "We hire a lot of folks that are homeless, and those four or five guys that panhandle never come down here looking to get hired."

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Thursday that a judge should not have tossed out the lawsuit without hearing evidence. The case will go to back to court, with both sides presenting evidence to support their case.

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