Lawsuit Targets Arcata Panhandling Law
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
by Daniel Mintz - Eye Correspondent
ARCATA – Having declined to strike aspects of its panhandling ordinance, the City of Arcata will have to defend itself against a lawsuit from a well-known political consultant.
Arcata resident Richard Salzman, who has helped coordinate the campaigns of District Attorney Paul Gallegos and several other liberal candidates, announced his filing of the lawsuit on May 19. It attacks the ordinance’s prohibitions against spoken and written requests for handouts, arguing that they’re unconstitutional.
The complaint, filed by Salzman’s attorney, Peter Martin, states that the ordinance’s ban on panhandling signage and comments “places an impermissible burden on the free speech rights of citizens in a public forum” and “presents an unacceptable risk of chilling and/or suppressing protected speech.”
Salzman is asking the court for an injunction on enforcing the ordinance, a declaration that it’s unconstitutional and recovery of costs involved with filing the lawsuit.
The ordinance’s prohibition of aggressive panhandling isn’t being challenged in the lawsuit.
In a press release, Salzman alleged that the City is violating basic civil rights and targeting the poor. “If first they silence the poor and the homeless, and I say nothing, who will speak up when they try to silence me?” he asked.
The City Council approved the ordinance last year but Arcata Mayor Susan Ornelas and Councilmember Shane Brinton voted against it. The council recently voted not to amend the ordinance, with Brinton casting a lone dissent vote.
In addition to banning aggressive panhandling and solicitations, the ordinance prohibits begging within 20 feet of businesses, parking lots, banks with automatic teller machines, bus stops, foot bridges and intersections.
Its findings section states that other city laws have failed to have an effect on a situation that has “generated an enhanced sense of fear, intimidation and disorder, and has caused many retail customers to avoid shopping or dining within the City.”
In an interview last February, when Salzman notified the City of his intent to sue, City Attorney Nancy Diamond said the ordinance is modeled after what’s been done elsewhere in the state and country, and what’s been tested in court.
“We are not the first community to look at panhandling ordinances,” she said. “This is very widespread and there is a fair amount of judicial law we were able to look at … we weren’t acting in a vacuum.”