Interior of an empty courtroom with gavel and sounding block on the desk.

Oh, capitalism. Sometimes the law says one thing in name but means another — as is the case with many anti-panhandling laws. These statutes make panhandling exceedingly difficult, often in the name of pedestrian and motorist “safety,” but what they’re really penalizing is the crime of being poor and asking for help.

Recently in Indiana, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking a law about to go into effect that would have banned the practice of asking for money within 50 feet of certain public locations, including restaurants, banks, ATMs, businesses, and more.

Ban Proponents Will Have to Be a Little Uncomfortable

Proponents of the ban claimed that its purpose was to “[ensure] the easy flow of foot traffic and [provide] a safe place for people to park their cars, go shopping, and purchase food without fear of being confronted with a request for money.”

Well, when you put it like that, it totally makes sense to prioritize the hypothetical peace of mind that comes with knowing that the next time you run errands you won’t have to interact with anyone who is down on their luck. It’s a terrifying thought!

Never mind that the people panhandling (who the ACLU says would be basically unable to ask for money at all in downtown areas under this law) often fear that they will not make enough money each day to purchase lifesaving essentials. As long as no one has to — shudder — step around a vulnerable person on the sidewalk and disrupt the flow of foot traffic!

Advocates for the ban also stated that its purpose was to prevent “verbal request[s] for money that could escalate to more serious criminal behavior.” U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson, in her opinion, responded to this claim that there was “no evidence whatsoever” linking panhandling to criminal behavior.

Yes, Being Able to Talk to Someone Is Protected Speech

In recent years, many localities have attempted to restrict panhandling and begging practices in their areas, often through indirect means such as limiting where soliciting money is allowed. However, since the landmark 2015 decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbertwhich had to do with regulation of church signage, such bans have undergone much more scrutiny and are frequently struck down for restrictions on signage and speech in public.

This Indiana case is similar to a case in 2017 in Arkansas, which ruled that non-verbal communication, which includes panhandling, is protected free speech.

In Washington state, a state Supreme Court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff’s right to panhandle in 2016.

A Sacramento statute similar to the Indiana panhandling ban criminalized “aggressive panhandling” but was erased in 2019 after a lawsuit challenged its legality.

Many other similar statutes and ordinances across the country criminalize the act of asking for money in public. The ACLU, which has led efforts to challenge many of these laws, says that such statutes criminalize poverty rather than actually keeping anyone safe. While the law does not require anyone to give money to every person who asks for it, there is no protection against being uncomfortable in these situations.

As said by Jane Henegar of the Indiana ACLU, who brought the case against the panhandling statute there, “The Indiana Legislature should be trying to remedy the reasons driving homelessness and joblessness. Criminalizing poverty is never a solution.”

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