Panhandlers plan to challenge recent Hot Springs City Ordinance
Hot Springs Panhandler challenging city ordinance.
A local panhandler whose successful appeal of a loitering conviction in June resulted in an influx of beggars on Hot Springs streets said Wednesday he believes that the city’s new ordinance to restrict the practice for safety reasons is still unconstitutional.
Hot Springs police began issuing warnings to panhandlers violating the new ordinance Wednesday morning. Hot Springs Police Department Cpl. Kirk Zaner said Wednesday afternoon that two warnings had been issued under the new ordinance.
Mike Rodgers, of Hot Springs, said Wednesday that he plans to file a federal lawsuit against the city of Hot Springs over the new ordinance.
Rodgers, who has been repeatedly ticketed for loitering, was arrested in June based on the 2010 Arkansas Code, which states in part that a person “commits the offense of loitering if he or she: lingers or remains in a public place or on the premises of another for the purpose of begging.”
Rodgers appealed his conviction in Garland County District Court to Garland County Circuit Court, where Division 1 Circuit Judge John Homer Wright ruled to dismiss the charge, finding the state law was “unconstitutional on its face as over broad.” In his order of dismissal, Wright noted that begging is a “constitutionally protected form of speech because it involves the communication of information, dissemination, or the advocacy of causes.” He further stated that speech could not be prohibited just based on the fact it involved a request for money.
The ordinance approved by the Hot Springs Board of Directors Tuesday night was grounded in protecting the safety of motorists and pedestrians, but Rodgers said Wednesday he still believes he could win a suit on the same grounds as those by which his conviction was repealed.
“Courts across the nation, when dealing with the exact same law, have ruled that you cannot separate the receiving of funds from the begging for funds,” Rodgers said. “They’ve ruled that roadsides are perfectly acceptable avenues for free speech, whether it be protest signs, or somebody begging, or road sale signs.”
Rodgers said the suit would be part of a “two-pronged approach” he plans to take in response to the ordinance. The other part of his plan includes working with law enforcement to address panhandling in ways that will guarantee the panhandlers’ rights to free speech while keeping the streets safe.
“There is some safety concern, mostly because some of those people have been bringing their kids out,” Rodgers said. “I did talk with the chief of police after the meeting and told him that I am willing to work with the police to come up with policies that will help with the begging situation without breaking the Constitution.”
Even while he fought — and plans to continue to fight — the ordinance, Rodgers said that addressing panhandling in and of itself will not fix the problem. Poverty in Hot Springs, which Rodgers cited as the reason behind the city’s beggars, is what the city should be addressing more thoroughly.
“What they’ve done is try to rephrase it to try to make the people begging look like the real problem when it’s really just a disease,” Rodgers said.
In order to address this issue, Rodgers said that police, social services and organizations should work together to provide aid to the city’s impoverished residents, which would decrease the amount of panhandling done within city limits.
Rodgers said that, at Tuesday’s meeting, he put forward an offer to the city to work with the police to find ways to address the safety concerns of panhandling by assisting law enforcement (see related article).
“I offered those services to the city myself when I was there yesterday,” Rodgers said. “They did not avail themselves of my aid.”