The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the new ordinance criminalizes free speech in areas where panhandling is common. The ALSU has asked a judge to declare the ordinance unconstitutional and to strike it from the books.
The ordinance, which the Albuquerque City Council passed last November, went into effect on Dec. 6. It restricts panhandlers from asking drivers for money on medians and busy freeway entrance and exit ramps. It also makes it illegal for drivers to physically interact with panhandlers.
Anyone who violates the ordinance can face a $500 fine and 90 days in jail. The ACLU says the ordinance violates a panhandler’s rights to free speech.
“Essentially what the city council is trying to do by this is just sweep homeless people, poor people, people living in poverty that are soliciting donations, under the rug,” said Maria Martinez Sanchez, a staff attorney with the ACLU. “It’s doing nothing to target the actual problems that people are facing that would actually help them get out of homelessness.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Tim Keller said they can’t comment due to pending litigation.
The ACLU wants a temporary injunction banning the city from enforcing the ordinance until a judge can rule on the lawsuit. The group filed the suit on behalf of five individuals, including two who they say rely on panhandling to survive and two others who offer donations to the homeless population.
“It took me forever to get from the street to having a roof over my head, and this new ordinance makes me terrified I’m about to lose that,” said one plaintiff, John Martin. “This ordinance makes it extremely difficult for me to pay rent but if I keep on seeking donations I risk fines I can’t afford and the possibility of ending up in jail. Either way, I become homeless again. I feel like my hands are tied.”
“I know what it’s like to be homeless, scared, and ashamed,” added another plaintiff Mary O’Grady. “At age 19, I wound up living in my car to escape a family situation rife with chaos and physical and emotional abuse. I was one of the lucky ones who made it out of that situation, so I feel compelled to give folks in similar circumstances any help and encouragement I can. But this ordinance makes these small acts of human compassion illegal, and that’s just not right.”
Authored by Sophie Ryan