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Johnston Agrees to Halt Enforcement of Anti-Pandhandling Ordinance; Joins Providence and Cranston

Posted: May 25, 2016|Category: Free Speech

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Responding to the threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU of Rhode Island, the Town of Johnston has indicated that it will halt enforcement of an anti-panhandling ordinance banning “aggressive begging.”  In doing so, the town joins the cities of Providence and Cranston in backing down from enforcement of these unconstitutional ordinances.

Earlier this month, the ACLU wrote Johnston police chief Richard Tamburini pointing out the ordinance’s “dubious constitutionality” after receiving a complaint from a person who was threatened with arrest while panhandling at an intersection in Johnston. In a written response dated May 19th, Johnston Town Solicitor William Conley, Jr., acknowledging the court cases striking down similar laws that were brought to his attention in the ACLU’s letter, advised the ACLU that the ordinance “in its current form has halted.”

The ACLU hailed the decision as yet another step in reducing the criminalization of poverty in Rhode Island. In February, the City of Providence told the ACLU it would halt enforcement of its anti-panhandling ordinance that had led to the harassment and arrest of homeless individuals, and last month Cranston settled an ACLU lawsuit by agreeing that its ban on “roadway solicitations” violated the First Amendment.

ACLU volunteer attorney Marc Gursky, who handled the successful lawsuit against Cranston, said today: “I commend town officials for acting promptly in recognizing their constitutional obligations and in saving taxpayers from the expense of an unnecessary lawsuit.” ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown added: “It is encouraging to see municipalities halt enforcement of these unconstitutional ordinances, as this is an important step in dealing with the problem of criminalized poverty.”

Megan Smith, an outreach worker with the House of Hope CDC, remarked: “I am optimistic that as municipalities are compelled not to criminalize homelessness and poverty, they will instead collaborate with constituents and other advocates on solutions to these issues, including affordable housing and adequate income supports.”

The ACLU is engaged in ongoing efforts to challenge and repeal laws that disproportionately affect the rights of the homeless.

A copy of the ACLU's letter and the City's response is available here.

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