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Federal judge: Alabama’s anti-panhandling laws likely violate constitution

Federal court Judge Keith Watkins said the laws against begging and soliciting are likely be to deemed violations of free speech.


A federal judge indicated Monday that he planned to rule that state laws against panhandling violate the first amendment — a decision that will likely make unenforceable, two state laws.

District Court Judge Keith Watkins made the comments while issuing an injunction that blocked the two laws — one which prohibits loitering for begging purposes and another that prohibits solicitations while standing on a roadway — from being enforced. 

Watkins said the plaintiffs in the case were “likely to succeed” in the final ruling because the statutes violate their first amendment protections on free speech.

“Hundreds, if not thousands of people are getting arrested or fined every year in Alabama because of these inhumane and unconstitutional laws,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Economic Justice Project. 

“People who are homeless need help, but instead we’re arresting them and charging them fines that they can’t pay. Although the court’s ruling applies only to the Montgomery Sheriff and state police, this ruling should be a warning shot to sheriffs and police departments across the state that they may face litigation unless they immediately stop criminalizing people who are experiencing homelessness and panhandling.”

Three homeless people in Montgomery filed the lawsuit after collectively being arrested dozens of times and racking up thousands in fines and fees. The defendants are Montgomery County Sheriff Derrick Cunningham, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency secretary Hal Taylor and the City of Montgomery. 

Montgomery was dropped as a defendant last year after the city agreed to stop enforcing its panhandling ordinances and drop all charges and waive any outstanding fines or fees for anyone arrested for the crimes. 

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“Once again, a court has reiterated that panhandling laws are an unconstitutional attack on free speech,” said Tish Gotell Faulk, legal director at ACLU of Alabama. “The outcome here is no surprise, nor should it be for the public servants who pledge an oath to protect the rights and freedoms of even the most vilified people in our communities, those who struggle with housing insecurity and extreme poverty. This decision once again admonishes our leaders by declaring that criminalizing poverty is never a solution.”

Cunningham and Taylor each filed motions in the case asking to be dismissed as defendants, since neither the sheriff’s office nor state troopers have arrested anyone for panhandling. 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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