By Michael Hill
A wheelchair-confined homeless man with a sign — and the Constitution on his side — got New Brunswick to settle and to agree to repeal its begging ban and a requirement that beggars must have a permit.
“We think all laws like this violate human dignity and are not the solution to homelessness,” said Deb Ellis, executive director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.
John Fleming took on New Brunswick because police cited him four times.
“I believe I have a right to hold a sign just like anybody has a right to advertise, you know, like a store handing out fliers for their store,” Fleming said in December.
New Brunswick’s city attorney said it was an old ordinance but enforced last year for order.
“We’re not criminalizing poverty. We’re trying to have an orderly city,” said City Attorney William Hamilton in December.
“I actually asked for money but I do it for a non-profit organization. So it’s considered not to be begging. But, if a poor person does it on the streets, it’s considered to be begging. If you’re put in jail, I think it’s criminal,” Ellis said.
A pro bono lawyer from McCarter & English and the ACLU sued for Fleming.
“You can’t have an absolute ban on begging. It’s our fundamental free speech rights to engage with other members of the public,” said ACLU of New Jersey Deputy Legal Director Jeanne Locicero.
To settle the case, the city of New Brunswick has agreed to donate $4,500 to a homeless charity and to pay court costs and Fleming’s attorneys.
In a statement, it’s also agreed to update two city ordinances dealing with panhandling because there are legitimate concerns regarding the constitutionality of the ordinances.
The city’s law department plans to introduce two new ordinances that will address panhandling and the regulation of solicitation of donations.
The ACLU says many New Jersey towns have bans against begging but they don’t enforce them. We found one in South Jersey that does. Middle Township adopted its ordinance in 2013 banning aggressive begging and panhandling. The police chief says as a result his officers have written eight citations for violation of that ordinance.
The chief says homeless and heroin-addicted beggars annoyed residents and that led to the law. He says it’s OK to beg on the sidewalk but following someone or repeatedly begging the same person crosses the line.
The attorney for Middle Township told NJTV News, “The ordinance was written in all good faith. I believe it will pass constitutional scrutiny. If someone wants to challenge it they can.”
The ACLU and the coalition are looking at begging bans in many New Jersey towns.
Those laws usually become an issue when police enforce them. An enforcement usually invites a lawsuit.
“We usually only hear about them when they are enforced. So that’s why we’re undertaking this effort to make sure that they are off the books so that police officers don’t have the ability to violate someone’s rights,” Locicero said.
The ACLU and the coalition are looking for their next challenge.