TUCSON -- The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed suit Tuesday against the city of Flagstaff, accusing municipal leaders of unconstitutionally driving beggars off the streets and criminalizing peaceful panhandling in public places.
“Begging is not a crime,” Arizona ACLU Legal Director Dan Pochoda said in a statement. “To appease local business interests, Flagstaff has sacrificed the fundamental rights of individuals and is throwing people in jail for simply for asking for a dollar or two for food.”
The complaint challenges a policy adopted by the city six years ago to remove people from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on suspicion of “loitering to beg.” City officials have used a state statute that makes it a crime to beg in all public spaces.
Flagstaff police made 135 such arrests from June 2012 to May 2013, according to the ACLU.
Flagstaff Police Chief Police Kevin Treadway did not return a call for comment.
City Atty. Michelle D’Andrea said Flagstaff officials could not comment until they had reviewed the lawsuit and drafted a response.
“The city typically does not comment on pending litigation and will file a response to the lawsuit in a timely manner,” D’Andrea said in a statement.
The three plaintiffs named in the suit include Marlene Baldwin, a 77-year-old Hopi woman who ACLU officials said is disabled and losing her eyesight. She was arrested in February on suspicion of loitering to beg after asking an undercover police officer if he could spare $1.25 for bus fare, according to the complaint.
Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who is serving as co-counsel in the lawsuit, said that although laws against aggressive panhandling and harassing solicitations have been found to be constitutional, states and cities cannot legally outlaw peaceful begging.
“When the most downtrodden among us are arrested and punished for the peaceful content of their speech, then none of our free speech rights are guaranteed,” Jordahl said.