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Judge Debates Dismissing Panhandling Lawsuit

By: Jessica Jaglois Email
By: Jessica Jaglois Email

September 13, 2011

A federal judge is deciding whether to dismiss a lawsuit brought by five panhandlers against the City of Charlottesville challenging the City's ordinance that restricts panhandling on parts of the Downtown Mall.

When presented Tuesday morning with what lawyer Jeffrey Fogel called "a literal interpretation" of the panhandling ordinance U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon said it was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard.

Fogel argued that the City's panhandling ordinance, enacted last year, violates the first amendment rights of his clients. He believes the law singles out beggars and puts unfair restrictions on them.

Judge Moon responded saying the panhandlers don't have a right to bother someone while eating lunch, and that Fogel is trivializing the First Amendment.

Fogel disagreed, giving the following example:

"If I go up and ask a friend of mine for a glass of water, it's a crime in Charlottesville to do that from someone at a seated outdoor café. Now the police may not enforce the law that way, but that's exactly what the law says."

The ordinance prohibits aggressive panhandling or soliciting of customers sitting at outdoor cafes or within 50 feet of two streets - 2nd Street SE and 4th Street NE - that cross the busy pedestrian mall. It doesn't allow panhandlers to make physical contact or intimidate someone on the mall. However, it also doesn't allow some forms of what is called passive panhandling, like holding up a sign.

"I'm not intimidating you [by holding a sign]. You may not like to see me, you may not like to see my sign, but I have a right to be there just as you have a right to be there," Fogel argued.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia contends the ordinance unconstitutionally restricts freedom of expression in a public venue.

The ACLU said it has challenged similar ordinances restricting begging or roadside solicitations in Richmond, Herndon, Newport News and Hampton. It says most of those proposals were either amended or abandoned.

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