The Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld a district judge’s ruling that the New Orleans city ordinance that outlaws begging — used to arrest more than 1,000 panhandlers in the past three years alone — is unconstitutional, and has been for decades.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Arthur Hunter scrapped the charges against a 24-year-old panhandler in May, blasting the city for continuing to enforce a law first declared faulty in 1984.
In the decades since then, thousands of people have been arrested for violating the law, but nothing has been done to fix its alleged deficiencies.
The Supreme Court denied the state’s request last week that it intervene in the case, though it offered no written reasons or analysis of the ordinance’s constitutionality.
The case stems from the May 2012 stop by two New Orleans police officers of Joseph Thornton, 24, who was begging for money alongside a road. They discovered he had a bag of cocaine hidden in his mouth.
Thornton was booked on the begging charge, a misdemeanor, along with a felony charge for the drugs.
In May, Hunter dismissed the drug charge, finding the evidence for it had been obtained during an illegal search.
In his order, the judge chronicled the anti-panhandling law’s checkered past, and pilloried the city for never rewriting or rescinding it.
In 1984, a federal court found the law in New Orleans was “overbroad.”
City law, at the time, barred anyone from standing on the street to hitchhike, sell goods or beg for money. The federal court banned the city from enforcing the law and suggested that it be rewritten to restrict begging only when it could be shown to pose a real threat to public safety: at particular times, like during rush hour or after dark, or on especially busy streets.
Hunter, in his order, criticized the city for having “ignored the court’s directive and advice.”
A decade later, in 1995, the council updated the begging ordinance, but instead of reeling it in, council members expanded the law’s reach. Restrictions against advertising for employment and soliciting charitable donations were added to the original bans on hitchhiking and begging cash.
The ordinance was again challenged and ended up before the state Supreme Court in 2009.
Before the court ruled, the city attorney promised it the law would no longer be enforced “until such a time as it is amended or re-enacted in a substantially altered form.”
The high court therefore deemed the issue moot, yet the law remains unchanged.
Between 2010 and May, nearly 1,300 people were charged under the law at New Orleans Municipal Court, according to figures provided earlier this year by Court Clerk Chris Sens.
He did not respond to requests last week for updated figures; Municipal Court was closed for Veterans Day on Monday.
After Hunter’s ruling, the city attorney told the Police Department to no longer enforce the ordinance, said Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Gamble said the city is researching how to amend the law to comply with the judge’s decision.
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, a lawyer, said after Hunter’s ruling in May that there was no evidence the council had ever been informed of the law’s flaws.
Meanwhile, the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office appealed Hunter’s decision to the state 4th Circuit Court of Appeal, which sided with the judge. The Supreme Court decided last week to let the appellate court’s decision stand.
The court’s silence on the constitutionality question leaves in limbo the issue of whether the city’s prohibition on panhandling, or similar laws in other jurisdictions across the state, violates beggars’ First Amendment right to free expression.
The American Civil Liberties Union attacked a similar ordinance in Slidell earlier this year, and the Slidell City Council quickly passed a new, narrower law to replace it.
Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said she could not estimate how many other cities and parishes have similar laws on the books.
“We would save a lot of money if we refocused what law enforcement should be, what crime and punishment should be and not try to criminalize behavior that doesn’t hurt anybody,” she said. “Just because people don’t like it doesn’t mean we should criminalize it. None of us has the right to be insulated from seeing things we don’t like to see. We may not want to see it, but they have the right to beg on the street.”