By Linda Kor
A law that has been a tool for local law enforcement in clearing out indigents from alleyways and other public areas has been struck from the books. A federal judge recently ruled that Arizona’s law making it a crime to beg or panhandle in public places is unconstitutional.
The ruling was based on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona against the City of Flagstaff after it was discovered that a 77-year-old Hopi woman was taken into custody for asking an undercover Flagstaff law enforcement officer for $1.25 for bus fare.
The judge ruled that the law, which states that a person commits loitering if such person intentionally is present in a public place to beg unless specifically authorized by law, is a violation of the right to free speech.
Communities such as Winslow and Holbrook have utilized the law to reduce instances of inebriates begging for money from residents and tourists in public places, and to prevent gatherings of such groups in alleyways.
While individuals who panhandle on private property such as supermarket parking lots may be trespassed, in public areas the change in the law means more work for law enforcement.
“It’s one less tool to work with,” stated Holbrook Police Chief Mark Jackson. “Any time you lose a tool to work with it’s a bad thing.”
Jackson agreed that the instance cited in the lawsuit was an extreme application of the statute, and finds it unfortunate that it has created an overall impact on the state. “We have never applied the law in such a manner. We use it primarily to keep people from congregating in the alleyways, so it won’t have a huge impact,” he explained.
The greater concern for Jackson is that when such broad sweeping rulings take place, little consideration may be taken for areas such as Holbrook or other reservation border towns. “When you see what happened in Flagstaff, the ruling makes sense. We have different circumstances in border towns,” he said.
The ruling allows for circumstances such as people sitting on sidewalks with cardboard signs asking for help, or someone politely asking for assistance. When it comes to inebriates entering into personal space and wanting money, the situation is different.
“In a situation like that, it’s not a peaceful situation. It’s invasive and offensive. That won’t be tolerated,” stated Jackson.
Such actions are still unlawful, as they could be considered harassment.
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By Linda Kor