Broke-Please Help-Thank You-God bless you

Today, a state court judge approved a settlement agreement that will end New Brunswick’s unconstitutional ban on begging. As a result of the settlement, New Brunswick has agreed to repeal or amend two ordinances that made it illegal to beg in the city. As part of the agreement, New Brunswick also will make a $4,500 donation to the well-regarded food bank and community organization Elijah’s Promise, and $3,000 in attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel.

The plaintiff is John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless man who lives in NB and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. He’d gotten citations from police for holding up a sign that said:

“Broke – Please Help – Thank You – God bless you.”

A few years ago in Flemington, where I live, a member of a political group I ran there – Hunterdon Democracy for America (DFA) ran afoul of local police when he staged a small demonstration on a broad sidewalk on Main Street against the Iraq War. He’d notified the police, who had denied him a permit under an ordinance that didn’t seem right to him, so he had the demonstration anyway.

And they arrested him.

Within about an hour, I had him represented by a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union – NJ (ACLU-NJ), which suggested the ordinance was overly broad and vague, and left to the police too much discretion for what was an acceptable public gathering. We and ACLU-NJ urged Flemington to simply adopt the more specific, and constitutional ordinance that another NJ city, Pleasantville, had been forced by the ACLU to adopt under similar circumstances. And in doing so, save themselves a year in court and the taxpayers the cost of defending an unconstitutional rule. (Our legal representation didn’t cost us a cent, ACLU-NJ repped us pro bono). ACLU-NJ offered the Pleasantville ordinance to Flemington, strongly suggesting its adoption as the easiest route for the municipality to be in compliance with the Constitution.

They fought it for about a year, and tens of thousands in legal costs for their taxpayers (self included), then adopted the Pleasantville ordinance just as we had suggested. The rules are now much clearer and more fair if you want to stage a demonstration in Flemington.

And so we come to Mr. Fleming’s case, resolved today:

One of the ordinances he was cited under explicitly banned panhandling, while the other required a permit to solicit philanthropic donations. ACLU-NJ through its pro bono lawyers at McCarter English argued that was a violation of his right to free expression. And in effect, that New Brunswick’s laws criminalized poverty. ACLU-NJ’s Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero:

“The Constitution protects the right to peacefully ask for money, and we’re pleased that New Brunswick will respect the rights of people like John Fleming who have done nothing wrong by trying to find a way to survive. Unfortunately, other towns in New Jersey have ordinances on the books that criminalize begging, and the ACLU-NJ will work to make sure everyone’s rights are protected.”

Man, that hit home with me. There are a couple things I should disclose here and now: (1) A member of my family is on ACLU-NJ’s Board (2) My natural inclination is to respect the circumstances of a person like Mr. Fleming, and not to make his life more difficult than it may already be (3) I’d be writing about this stuff anyway, whether I had any personal connections to ACLU-NJ or not.

But here’s the thing: LoCicero says there are other towns with similar ordinances. I’ve been in that territory before, and my experience tells me that when ACLU-NJ tells you your town’s rules aren’t constitutional, they probably aren’t. So let this be a warning to those of you elected to serve the people of your town and city: Let Mr. Fleming’s case be the reason you take a look at your ordinances that deal with issues like “begging”.

Would your ordinances stand up to challenge? Consider this an opportunity to do the right thing if your town’s rules need an upgrade, before a court challenge requires you to. Truth.  

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