ACLU wins lawsuit claiming anti-panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional

Local News

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A federal court judge has ruled it’s no longer a crime for people in Albuquerque to ask for money on city sidewalks, medians or freeway on and off-ramps.

“Panhandling is a big problem in Albuquerque,” Isaiah Lujan of Albuquerque said. “They’ve been here for years, they’ll continue to be here.”

Now, the city can’t do anything to stop people from asking for money after a U.S. District Court judge on Thursday ruled the city’s so-called Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is unconstitutional.

That means Albuquerque police cannot ticket or arrest people for asking for money across the city, often seen on sidewalks, medians, and freeway on and off-ramps.

“Just because you disagree with it, just because you don’t like to look at it, doesn’t mean you have the right to take away people’s First Amendment rights, and that’s exactly what the city was doing in this case,” ACLU Attorney Maria Martinez-Sanchez said.

The civil rights group filed the lawsuit a year and a half ago, calling the law a thinly veiled crackdown on panhandlers and a violation of free speech. The city insisted the ordinance was about keeping pedestrians safe.

“They used the pretext of safety constantly throughout the litigation,” Martinez-Sanchez said.

The judge’s order states that with the exception of prohibiting standing in travel lanes, the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance violates free speech because it focuses too much on people standing on sidewalks or medians

The ordinance’s sponsor, City Councilor Trudy Jones, refuses to call it a panhandling ordinance and maintains the goal is keeping pedestrians and drivers safe, adding that the city is still reviewing their legal options in regard to the court’s order.

The ACLU said it will be prepared in case the city files an appeal.
In a statement, city spokesperson Jessie Damazyn said, “The legal reality is now clear. We are ready to support new City Council efforts to keep our streets safe and reduce pedestrian injuries associated with chronic panhandling.”

Last summer, the ACLU also asked nine other New Mexico cities to drop their similar panhandling ordinances. The civil rights group said most of them have already changed their laws and the ACLU has no lawsuits against any of them.

Read Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Brack’s decision below:

Pedestrians who choose to stand, seek donations, or hand out leaflets in any area where increased physical proximity to vehicles benefits their expressive activity may be taking on more risk than individuals who choose to do so from the sidewalk. Still, prohibiting all access to these spaces on the ground that Albuquerque struggles with troubling high rates of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts, without presenting any evidence beyond anecdotal and personal speculation that the ban would actually reduce the number of such conflicts in the City and that less sweeping restrictions would not suffice, runs afoul of the First Amendment.

Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Brack

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