Charges in battle over Cranston’s panhandling ordinance dismissed
By MARK PRATT Associated Press
CRANSTON, RI (AP) – A yearslong legal battle over attempts by Rhode Island’s second-largest city to ban panhandling is coming to a close with the dismissal of charges against six advocates for the homeless who were ticketed four years ago for protesting the ordinance that opponents said was unconstitutional.
The cases against the advocates charged in Cranston in 2017 will be officially dismissed during a court hearing on Thursday, the Rhode Island Homeless Bill of Rights Defense Committee said in a statement Wednesday.
“This outcome represents a significant success in ensuring that people can exercise their free speech rights to meet their survival needs,” Megan Smith, one of the people charged, said. “I hope that this outcome — and the monetary cost associated with it — dissuades other municipalities from enacting measures like this one, which are cruel, short-sighted, and based on stereotypes and political rhetoric, not facts.”
She added that instead of criminalizing homelessness, cities should focus on creating affordable housing.
Steven Paiva, a spokesperson for Cranston Mayor Kenneth Hopkins, confirmed that the charges were being dismissed and pointed out that they were brought in 2017 under a previous mayor’s administration, but said the city would have no further comment.
The legal fight dates to 2015 when Cranston passed an ordinance to stop people from standing on city streets to ask for money from the occupants of motor vehicles. The city agreed to settle an American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island lawsuit challenging that ban and to stop enforcing it.
The city passed a similar but more narrowly tailored ordinance in 2017 that supporters said was to ensure safety on city streets. To challenge it, the six advocates took to a busy intersection during rush hour to distribute flyers and panhandle and were handed $85 tickets for engaging in “roadway solicitation.”
The ACLU also challenged that ordinance, saying it violated the First Amendment, and pointing out that it also prevented other longstanding activities such as firefighters’ “fill the boot” campaigns and youth sports teams collecting donations.
That lawsuit was settled in April, when a federal judge entered a consent judgment declaring the ordinance unconstitutional and barring the city from enforcing it. As part of the settlement, the city paid the ACLU $140,000 for legal fees.
“We hope to use the outcome in Cranston to catalyze our efforts to do away with criminalizing ordinances in other cities and towns,” said Barbara Freitas, another protester charged.