Today, the Florida Justice Institute (FJI), in partnership with Fort Lauderdale lawyers Mara Shlackman and Frantz J. McLawrence, filed a lawsuit challenging the City of Pompano Beach’s anti-panhandling ordinance as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech. The Ordinance prohibits the solicitation of donations, business, or sales during certain times and at certain intersections, and otherwise requires compliance with 21 onerous regulations—including completing a roadway safety course, wearing a brightly colored protective vest, erecting a warning sign, and displaying an identification number—or be subject to arrest, fines, or imprisonment. The law does not impose these restrictions on any other forms of speech. The suit seeks an immediate declaration that the law violates the First Amendment and is impermissibly vague under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Plaintiff is Bernard McDonald, a currently homeless man who requests donations to help with his survival. He was arrested under the Ordinance after holding a sign saying, “Homeless, please help me if you can.” The arresting officer noted he was not wearing an OSHA- or ANSI- approved brightly-colored safety vest.
“In the last two years, this law has been enforced almost exclusively against homeless people who were peacefully requesting donations,” said Ray Taseff, lead attorney with the Florida Justice Institute. “But this speech is protected by the First Amendment. The City cannot single out panhandling for differential treatment.”
The Ordinance only applies to the solicitation of donations, business, or sales; all other forms of speech are permitted without restrictions. For instance, no restrictions are imposed on a church member soliciting support for a religious cause, a candidate for public office asking for votes in an upcoming election, a political activist advocating for a different climate change policy, or a tourist asking for directions. In the last two years, police have made nearly 100 arrests under the Ordinance.
When requesting donations is allowed, solicitors must comply with 21 strict regulations, which are often difficult or impossible to comply with. For instance, solicitors must 1) wear an OSHA or ANSI approved brightly colored safety vest, 2) erect a sign 300 feet in each direction from the intersection notifying the public of their presence, 3) complete a roadway safety from the National Safety Council, and 4) display an identification number.
“The police are using this law to criminalize poverty and homelessness,” said Mara Shlackman. “A criminal justice response to this issue is a cruel and counterproductive strategy. Pompano Beach should focus on more constructive solutions like affordable housing.”
The case is McDonald v. City of Pompano Beach, Case No. 20-cv-60297 in the Southern District of Florida. For more information, contact Ray Taseff, firstname.lastname@example.org, 786-342-6919.