ACLU: Slidell law banning begging is unconstitutional

Slidell police are violating the First Amendment rights of panhandlers in the city by arresting them, according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Louisiana chapter, which has asked the city to immediately stop the arrests. A police spokesman said the department is awaiting the city attorney’s advice before taking any official action.

The ACLU’s request, made in a letter sent to City Attorney Bryan Haggerty, says Slidell Police have been arresting beggars based on an unconstitutional ordinance banning street peddling. Marjorie Esman, state director of the ACLU, cited federal court rulings from several U.S. districts to back up her claim.

“Not only is begging protected speech, Slidell’s public streets, like all public streets, are traditional public forums” in which regulations on speech are presumed invalid, the letter says.

The ACLU’s letter also says the ordinance on which the arrests are based is overly broad. Slidell’s law prohibits anyone peddling wares while traveling on foot, by wagon or by car.

It also prohibits people from soliciting funds or promoting political or religious ideologies. While the former prohibition is possibly legitimate, the latter violates the First Amendment, Esman wrote.

The ACLU similarly intervened in New Orleans when the city attempted to ban certain religious speech and “aggressive solicitation” on Bourbon Street during certain hours. That ordinance was rescinded last month.

The ACLU’s letter says that “several individuals” have been arrested and jailed by Slidell police for what amounts to legal activity.

An examination of arrest records provided by the Slidell Police Department uncovered one instance since July 1 of a person being arrested for panhandling: Tammy Post, a 48-year-old Slidell woman with a listed address on Richmond Drive. Post was arrested July 15.

Slidell police spokesman Det. Daniel Seuzeneau said Post wanted to be arrested so that they could challenge the law.

Post’s partner “sets up a camera and encourages police to come arrest his girlfriend,” Seuzeneau said of Post’s partner. “This is a cause they decided they want to pursue.”

The police’s job is to enforce laws on the books, which include prohibitions on panhandling, Seuzeneau said. The Slidell Police Department regularly receives complaints about begging, aggressive begging and soliciting without a permit, Seuzeneau said.

The department will continue to investigate the complaints; any new arrests will be made under the state’s vagrancy statute, Seuzeneau said. That will continue while Haggerty reviews the ACLU’s concerns, he said.

“Normally we ask them to move on and don’t arrest them,” he said. “If they are caught again, then they are arrested.”

There is no set policy on when to arrest and when not to arrest panhandlers, he said.

Seuzeneau said the department probably makes fewer than 10 panhandling arrests a year, though he could not provide exact figures.

Esman said the she is aware of “more than one” person who was arrested for panhandling in the city, but she did not know a specific number. She said she had been working on the issue for several weeks.

Esman would not say whether the ACLU will pursue legal action if the city continues arresting beggars.

“They are illegal arrests and it’s time for them to stop,” she said.