SAN FRANCISCO — A Humboldt County Superior Court judge has struck down as unconstitutional most of an ordinance that banned non-aggressive panhandling in Arcata within 20 feet of any retail store, intersection, parking lot or bus stop, among other places.
The ruling, released Wednesday, allows the North Coast town to enforce the ban under only two narrow circumstances: near unenclosed ATMs and on public transit vehicles.
The college town long has been a magnet for vagrants, who congregate on its New England-style central plaza. And officials long have struggled with how to address the often-annoying requests for money, booze or pot.
Passed by the City Council two years ago, the sweeping ordinance banned aggressive panhandling — a stance that was not challenged in court.
However, Judge Dale A. Reinholtsen sided overwhelmingly with a resident who challenged portions of the law that forbade non-aggressive panhandling — including the holding of a sign — in vast swaths of the town's commercial districts and beyond.
"Arcata may not restrict solicitation merely because it makes people uncomfortable," Reinholtsen wrote. "To put it simply, speech rights prevail in a public forum (e.g., public parks, streets, etc.) in the absence of unique circumstances."
While Reinholtsen found the ordinance "narrowly tailored" to address the problem officials sought to remedy, when weighing the city's interests against free-speech rights he concluded that the balance "disfavors Arcata in most instances."
The lawsuit was brought by Richard Salzman, who carries a copy of the Constitution in the pocket of his sport coat. He said he was pleased that the judge "agrees with me in general that the city overreached, and that this is an infringement of free speech."
Mayor Michael Winkler had voted for the broad restrictions along with two others on the five-member council after receiving legal assurances that a number of cities had approved similar bans.
"I'm disappointed," Winkler said. "I thought it was carefully crafted, and I'm sorry that the ruling was what it was."
A report last fall by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty found that slightly more than half of 234 cities surveyed had bans on aggressive panhandling, the same proportion had outlawed it in specific areas, and one-fourth forbade begging citywide. Most of the ordinances have not been challenged.
Winkler declined to comment on the content of the ruling or the possibility of an appeal, saying the city attorney had advised officials not to do so.
Attorney Peter Martin, who represented Salzman and serves with him on the board of the Humboldt Civil Liberties Defense Fund, said the judge "really did wrestle with the issues, and if there is an appeal it will show he made a real effort to analyze the law and balance it on both sides."
Martin said he doubted that Arcata voters "want to see their council spend any more money appealing." But if the city were to appeal and lose, "it would create a statewide rule."