A group of five panhandlers are expected to file a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville today over part of the city’s code on soliciting.
Attorney Jeffrey E. Fogel confirmed Wednesday that the complaint is expected to be filed in Charlottesville’s federal court on behalf of Albert Clatterbuck, Christopher Martin, Earl McCraw, John Jordan and Michael Sloan.
The City Council voted in August to rename its panhandling ordinance to soliciting, adding provisions that prevent solicitation from customers conducting businesses at vendors or within 50 feet of the two vehicular crosses on the Downtown Mall. The change was spurred by complaints about panhandling.
Fogel is representing the panhandlers along with fellow attorney Steven D. Rosenfield and attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Foundation.
The lawsuit is expected to claim that the code violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments because it “criminalizes some speech … and not other speech … based on the content of the communication.” Fogel said begging is a form of expression that is covered under the First Amendment.
The complaint also is expected to allege that the code provisions prohibiting solicitation “from or to” customers who are seated in outdoor cafés or at vendor tables are too vague, providing law enforcement with “virtually unlimited discretion.”
Mayor Dave Norris said Wednesday that he was aware of the forthcoming lawsuit, but he said the council took steps to make the amended code fair. He said the code was renamed to make it clear that it would be applied consistently, whether the person soliciting for money was homeless or with a nonprofit organization.
“Ninety percent of the Downtown Mall is still open for solicitation,” Norris said. “The changes we made were much less drastic than what some of us were advocating.”
Fogel, who has been outspoken about his distaste for the code changes, has said the ordinance unfairly targets the poor and homeless.
“They felt that this was a campaign against them,” Fogel said about the plaintiffs, who all are homeless.
Charlottesville police Lt. Ronnie Roberts said Wednesday that the city issued three panhandling citations between Aug. 1 and Tuesday. According to Charlottesville General District Court records, the plaintiffs do not appear to have been accused or convicted of soliciting.
Roberts, who has previous experience patrolling the Downtown Mall, said most officers will give panhandlers a warning if they are in a spot where they are not allowed to solicit under the code. Citizens also can contact police to report solicitations that don’t follow the code.
City police don’t track the number of warnings they give out to panhandlers. Roberts said there haven’t been “significant issues” with soliciting since the ordinance was modified.
Norris is a previous executive director of PACEM, which is an interfaith collaboration of local congregations that help the homeless find shelter during the winter. The mayor said while he knows panhandling is a protected form of free expression, he doesn’t support it.
“I think people should give money to organizations that are providing valuable services to the disadvantaged,” he said. “We want people to be compassionate, but we also want people to be smart in their charitable giving and to do what they can to make sure their dollars are actually helping a situation.”