Federal judge blocks state panhandling law from taking effect

(IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

A federal judge has issued a ruling that stops a new state panhandling law from taking effect Wednesday as planned and calls the measure unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in April filed the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the panhandling law, which expands the definition of panhandling in a way that effectively bans begging for money throughout downtown Indianapolis.

The Indiana General Assembly passed the legislation in March and Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it. It was expected to take effect Wednesday, but the ACLU requested a preliminary injunction in its lawsuit.

U.S. District Court Southern District of Indiana Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson granted that request in a ruling issued Tuesday, describing the law as “an unconstitutional prohibition on the freedom of speech” and saying attorneys for the state did not provide proof to show that panhandling is causing issues in downtown Indianapolis.

“This preliminary injunction will help to protect the constitutional rights of all, including vulnerable Hoosiers who appear to be the particular target of this law,” Jane Henegar, executive director at the ACLU of Indiana, said in a written statement. “The Indiana Legislature should be trying to remedy the reasons driving homelessness and joblessness. Criminalizing poverty is never a solution.”

Advocates for the legislation have argued that panhandling is out of control in downtown and action was needed to stem the problem. They have pointed to an ordinance in San Antonio to justify the measure’s constitutionality.

But opponents, including the ACLU of Indiana, have argued that court decisions made after the San Antonio ordinance took effect have declared panhandling laws like Indiana’s unconstitutional.

The legislation makes panhandling illegal within 50 feet of any ATM; entrance or exit of a bank, business or restaurant; public monument; or place where any “financial transaction” occurs.

The definition of “financial transaction” includes any exchange of money received by a business, parking meter, parking garage, public transportation authority facility or pay station, or restaurant.

That’s substantially different from current state law, which makes it a criminal offense to panhandle within 20 feet of an ATM or entrance to a bank or when the individual being solicited is at a bus stop, in a vehicle or in the sidewalk dining area of a restaurant.

The ACLU argues that the law violates the First Amendment because it limits free speech and says it would even prohibit its staff members and volunteers from soliciting donations for the organization while handing out copies of the constitution, which it regularly does on Constitution Day on Sept. 17.

The lawsuit, which was filed against the superintendent of Indiana State Police, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, is being defended by the Office of the Indiana Attorney General.

In court filings, the attorney general’s office has not argued against the ACLU’s interpretation of the law. Instead, the state’s lawyers have argued that the law does not violate the First Amendment because it still allows for passive panhandling, such as holding a sign or performing music.

In her ruling, Magnus-Stinson wrote that the state attorneys outlined several reasons why the law has compelling interest for the government, such as promoting the safety and convenience of citizens on public streets and preventing businesses and traffic from the disruption of panhandling, but there wasn’t any evidence provided to show that panhandling is threatening those interests.

“For example, they do not provide any statistics linking panhandling to disruptions to business, or showing that panhandling typically escalates to criminal behavior,” Magnus-Stinson wrote. “And simply stating that individuals may not want to be approached for a solicitation is not enough to show a compelling interest.”

She said the “case is not a close call.”

“Defendants submit no evidence whatsoever to support the notion that the statute furthers a compelling governmental interest,” Magnus-Stinson wrote.

A spokesperson for Hogsett declined to comment. A spokesperson for Holcomb did not immediately respond to IBJ’s request for comment.

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22 thoughts on “Federal judge blocks state panhandling law from taking effect

  1. Good. If the State is really concerned about panhandling, then they can stop siphoning money away from Indianapolis and start funding public housing and mental health programs.

  2. To be expected from our pathetic federal courts. I give the state credit for trying to do something about this disgusting behavior that gives our capital city a black eye. There’s no excuse for the city allowing these beggars and panhandlers to pollute our sideways and roadways. The ACLU’s joke about infringement on First Amendment rights is a joke, and hopefully will be laughed out of the appellate courts.

    1. John M., might want to check your privilege at the street corner. It’s not just the federal courts but virtually every state court that has struck down anti-panhandling laws.

      These people are down and out, sometimes homeless, and you’re showing an incredibly ugly side of your soul to say they are disgusting and polluting your path. It’s perfectly acceptable to make eye contact to acknowledge their humanity, say “sorry, no”, and make a contribution at some point to homeless shelters or other organizations that help the disadvantaged.

      Or you can continue your heartless path. Are you Christian? If so, WWJD? What did Jesus say to do? Pretty sure it wasn’t, “Call them disgusting”. Something about feeding the poor and clothing the naked. Or, stay in Carmel.

      Matthew 25:35-45 New International Version (NIV)
      35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
      37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
      40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
      41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
      44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
      45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

  3. Yeah, panhandling. Until the last few years, I never dreamed I would be seeing people living and sleeping in the downtown and the Mayor and local government putting up with it. Support for shelters and food but nothing should be done but to allow or encourage “panhandling’ downtown, if that is what they want to call it, is not something that is welcome. Why would any more major companies want to invest in a downtown that now looks and smells like so many other “major cities” out there as well as the now obligatory broken glass and damage from all the peaceful protests.

    1. Neil D. – see my comment above. Is Indy not staying enough white and middle-class for you?

    1. Ed Ucated G – I respect and agree with your thoughts. As A.C.P., Jr. said – keep the faith and spread it gently.

  4. Stinson is a life long Dem with at top 1% income. Let’s have her limo drop her off in front of the comic store on the circle instead of the door to her office and check back in a few months to see if she thinks panhandling is “causing any issues downtown”.

    1. Richard S., is that the best you have? “Virtue Signaling”? Ad hominem attacks without addressing the topic at hand. I sometimes give cash, more often hand out “blessing bags”, and give to charities. I am far from perfect. I am not terribly religious – but I know I live in a bible belt area and many of the people who read this profess to be Christians. That’s why I threw in the Bible verse, to illustrate the hypocrisy.

    2. (1) Incorrect. (2) Correct. And what would you point be? (Still noticing you side-stepping the questions at hand.)

    3. Also, thanks for pointing out the “hypocrisy” of the “heartless” – those who disagree with you. Count me shamed for my “ad hominem” comments.

    4. Richard S., strike three!

      Hypocrisy is for those who call themselves Christians yet completely ignore the teachings of Jesus even when asked to take a second look at their statement. Everyone makes mistakes, but if they stubbornly stick to their guns even after being pointed in the right direction by their faith, then they’re hypocrites.

      Heartless is for anyone, whether Christian or not, who despises people who panhandle and just wish they’d go away.

      It is for THOSE reasons that I call out people who act hypocritically and/ or heartlessly in this situation. It’s not because they disagree with me. I stand ready to engage in a calm debate if you decide you’re ready to offer up your rationale and a cogent counterpoint to my argument.

  5. There is more than enough help availalbe for the homeless – the panhandlers just choose not to accept it…. That’s why I choose not to accept their behavior. I should be able to walk down the street without being accosted. How can we force them to accept the help that’s available???

  6. These people have no business on the streets of Indianapolis. It is dangerous at night. The strong homeless beat up the weak homeless and Rob/steal from them. It is a cesspool of drug dealing. Spice is rampant and the addicted are strung out all over the city. Passed out. Sleeping in human feces and urine. Civilized societies don’t allow their commerce centers to end up like this. The mayor and city counsel are like the spineless elites of the cities of New York, Seattle, Minneapolis. Stay tuned, with the present leadership Indianapolis is not far behind and heading into the same abyss. Joe Hogsett has not appeared since the city was looted. Zero leadership ; AWOL; has no plan to get the city back up on its feet; pathetic; this great city deserves much better

  7. Interesting to note that another “RICHARD S.” – this one with a user name in all-caps, is now posting on this thread. Not me! Note to IBJ: If this is a legit user, you should see the confusion this naming scheme could engender.