Federal appeals court rejects ABQ panhandling ordinance - Albuquerque Journal

Federal appeals court rejects ABQ panhandling ordinance

A panhandler walks the median on Coors near Irving on January 4, 2018. The city has yet to put up signs to deter panhandling. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque’s panhandling ordinance suffered another blow Wednesday when a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s finding that the measure violates First Amendment rights.

The 2017 ordinance bars anyone from standing on a median or congregating close to a highway entrance or ramp.

The 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with a 2019 ruling by Judge Robert Brack of the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque who ruled that the law wasn’t sufficiently narrow to avoid violating First Amendment rights.

The appellate court ruled that Albuquerque “is unable to establish that the Ordinance does not burden substantially more speech than necessary to further its interest in pedestrian safety.”

In addition, Albuquerque “almost completely failed to even consider alternative measures that restrict or burden the speech at issue less severely than does the Ordinance,” the opinion states.

The city’s Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, which took effect in December 2017, was never fully implemented.

The following month, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Goodwin Proctor law firm filed the lawsuit against the city on behalf of panhandlers, protesters and people who pass out items to the needy.

Leon Howard, legal director for ACLU New Mexico, cheered the ruling on Wednesday.

“This is a big victory to uphold the tenets of the First Amendment,” Howard said. “If you want to deal with the issue of panhandling, there are more holistic measures to deal with that issue.”

The city needs to “take this as a message to move on” and “dig in and focus on the root causes that lead people to panhandle,” he said.

City Councilor Trudy Jones, who sponsored the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance, called the ruling a blow to public safety in Albuquerque.

“We’re seeing people die, and it’s just horrific,” Jones said Wednesday. “When we look at the number of pedestrians that are being hurt or dying, it just keeps growing.”

The city was “reasonably confident that we could win this one,” Jones said. “We try to keep people safe and alive in the city. It just doesn’t always work.”

Mayor Tim Keller’s office declined comment Wednesday and referred questions to the City Council, saying in a brief written statement that the ordinance “was a council initiative.”

In their arguments before the appellate court, city officials said the restrictions are needed to address pedestrian safety concerns and were narrowly tailored to not restrict speech more than necessary.

The 10th Circuit, like a U.S. District Court judge, disagreed, saying that the ordinance’s provisions weren’t sufficiently narrow to conform to the goal of reducing pedestrian-vehicle crashes.

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