Arizona ban on panhandling found unconstitutional in Flagstaff case

A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional an Arizona law that bans panhandling. Above, a young woman begging in Santa Monica.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

An Arizona law that makes it a crime to beg for money or food in public is unconstitutional, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona against the city of Flagstaff, which has drawn national attention for its aggressive stance on panhandling by jailing some violators.

Last month, the city changed course after the ACLU sued on behalf of a 77-year-old woman who had been arrested when she asked an undercover police officer for bus fare. ACLU attorneys argued that the state law, which makes it a crime to beg in public spaces, and Flagstaff’s enforcement of it were unconstitutional.


The council agreed and voted unanimously to stop enforcing the statute, promising that city officials would no longer interfere with a person peacefully begging in public spaces. But the council left the door open to imposing other restrictions.

Peaceful begging is generally characterized as holding a sign or asking passersby for money or food.

Following the suit, Atty. Gen. Tom Horne also weighed in, saying he would not contest the ACLU’s effort to have a federal judge declare the state law unconstitutional.

The ACLU lawsuit challenged a policy Flagstaff adopted six years ago to remove people from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day on suspicion of loitering to beg.

Flagstaff police had arrested an estimated 135 people on suspicion of loitering to beg during one year. In some cases, those people were jailed, said Mik Jordahl, a Flagstaff attorney who served as ACLU co-counsel in the lawsuit.

“Many of the people arrested under the begging law simply needed a little assistance — not a jail cell,” Jordahl said in a statement released by the ACLU after Friday’s court ruling. “Law enforcement must stand up for the constitutional rights of peaceful beggars and not just respond to complaints from powerful downtown business interests who would take those rights away and sweep homelessness and poverty out of sight.”

Flagstaff’s aggressive stance reflected a national trend of states and localities using the law to try to prevent panhandling and control the movements of the homeless, said Heather Maria Johnson, civil rights director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, based in Washington.

Some states have passed similar laws against begging, while others have relied on old laws, but Flagstaff’s efforts were a case of extreme enforcement, Johnson said.

Courts nationwide have ruled that laws against aggressive panhandling and harassment are constitutional but have found that peaceful begging is protected by the Constitution.


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