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South Florida Leads State In Arrests For Panhandling, New Lawsuit Alleges

Emily Michot
Miami Herald

Thousands of homeless residents across Florida have been arrested in recent years on charges of asking for money in public spaces without government authorization. A lawsuit filed this month by the Southern Legal Counsel alleges that those thousands of arrests are violating the First Amendment -- a stance that has previously been upheld by U.S. District Courts for the Middle and Northern Districts of Florida.

Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach are the top three counties for making these arrests in 2017, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to statewide data included in the lawsuit. Arrests made by a combination of state, county and municipal police are included in those overall numbers.

Attorneys from the Southern Legal Counsel, which filed the suit, point out that charitable organizations are able to ask for money in public spaces, according to statute. That creates a form of “content-based restriction” on free speech, the attorneys argue.

“Charitable organizations and people who are asking for money are both protected under the First Amendment -- to ask for money, to ask for help,” said Kirsten Anderson, the litigation director of Southern Legal Counsel, which filed the suit. “Certain individuals are singled out and told their free speech is not allowed. It’s discriminating based on viewpoint.”

Panhandling being subjected to freedom of speech laws may sound like a stretch, but a lawsuit from the Southern Legal Counsel last year got a federal appeals court to declare that sharing food with the homeless is an “expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.” Southern Legal Counsel told WLRN at the time that it was the “first pronouncement on this issue by any federal appeals court in the country."

That case related to a 2014 ordinance passed by the city of Fort Lauderdale that banned sharing food in public parks unless those sharing food provided portable toilets, handwashing stations and other conditions.

The new lawsuit was brought on behalf of Peter Vigue, a homeless resident of St. John’s County who says he has been repeatedly arrested by the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol. The suit was filed in federal court in Jacksonville against David Shoar, the Sheriff of St. John’s County, and Gene Spaulding, the director of the Florida Highway Patrol.

Chuck Mulligan, a spokesperson for the St. John's County Sheriff's Office, said his department has long had issues with Vigue. Since 2013, the department has come into contact with him 160 times, he said, noting not all of those contacts resulted in arrests. The arrest that Vigue is bringing the suit under happened while he was standing in traffic, said Mulligan.

"He was arrested due to the fact that he was out in the street interfering with traffic flow. For us this is a public safety issue," he said. "Had we not gone out and got him off the street and he got hit and hurt, someone would sue us for not protecting him."

"Does his right to ask for money in the street overweigh your right to move forward in traffic?" Mulligan added. "That's for the courts to figure out."

The Florida Highway Patrol declined to comment on a case pending litigation.

While the case was brought in North Florida, the largest number of arrests have been happening in South Florida, according to data included in the filing. In 2017, 1,317 people in Broward County were arrested for the two panhandling statutes cited in the lawsuit, the highest in the state. Miami-Dade County followed, with 784 people arrested for the statutes; Palm Beach County listed 615 arrests.

The case aims to tackle the state statutes, but also to force counties and cities across the state to change local ordinances that restrict where people can ask for money in public.

“This reflects the use of the criminal justice system to remove homelessness from the public space, to clean public spaces of homeless people,” said Anderson.

The two statutes in question were previously struck down as unconstitutional by the Middle and Northern Districts of Florida in the early 2000s, but the state legislature slightly amended the statutes in the 2007 legislative session.

That same year, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum wrote an advisory opinion “strongly” suggesting the Florida Legislature revisit one of the statutes “to consider the First Amendment problems” brought up by a previous lawsuit. The legislature has yet to amend that statute since the opinion was written, but in 2010 did make some changes to the other statute in question, according to legislative records.

Anderson said there’s a reason it’s taken so long for someone to push back against the panhandling laws in court.

“It’s partially a result of who is getting arrested for these statutes,” she said. “These are people that have to stand on street corners and ask for money.”

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Daniel Rivero is a reporter and producer for WLRN, covering Latino and criminal justice issues. Before joining the team, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.
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