ACLU-NJ and Homeless Group Challenge New Brunswick’s Unconstitutional Ban on Begging

December 19, 2014

NEWARK -- The ACLU-NJ filed a lawsuit against the City of New Brunswick for two unconstitutional ordinances – one forbids panhandling and the other requires a permit to solicit philanthropic donations – that violate the First Amendment and in effect criminalize poverty. With pro bono attorneys from McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ filed the suit on behalf of John Fleming, a New Brunswick man who has been cited several times and arrested for violating the ordinances, and on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

The lawsuit seeks an immediate and permanent end to the ordinances and requested the court schedule a prompt hearing.

 “The inconvenience a passerby might experience from hearing a plea for money pales in comparison to the violation a homeless person experiences in losing an essential constitutional liberty,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, New Brunswick isn’t alone – not in the U.S., and not in New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ is committed to making sure towns in our state don’t use poverty as grounds to strip people of their rights.”

John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless resident of New Brunswick who relies on panhandling to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months for asking for money via a sign that read “Broke – Please Help – Thank you – God bless you.” At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation. He was later held for failing to appear in court on traffic violation from Watchung more than 10 years before.

“Individuals like Mr. Fleming must choose between acquiring enough money to survive and facing citations or arrests,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. “Making poor people into criminals does not reduce homelessness or poverty. A person experiencing homelessness suffers many indignities – losing freedom of speech shouldn’t be added to that list.”

The ordinances at issue ban constitutionally protected, peaceful expression by outlawing certain forms of speech based solely on the content: asking for money or food. The anti-panhandling ordinance unconstitutionally prohibits people from asking for money in public. Another ordinance bans solicitation of philanthropic gifts without a permit, although only organizations rather than individuals can obtain them. Fleming has been cited under both ordinances. In its filing, the ACLU-NJ asks the court to immediately and permanently strike the two ordinances from the books.

“All I’m doing is holding a sign to ask for help, but this isn’t just about me – it’s about the government not being able to arrest people for what they say,” Fleming said. 

New Brunswick is not alone in criminalizing poverty. Towns in New Jersey, and across the country, have passed ordinances banning panhandling and forbidding sharing food with homeless people, as documented in the report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities” released by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Atlantic City, Newark, and Trenton are reported to have laws on the books banning or restricting begging. Atlantic City requires a permit and has requirements a homeless person might not be able to meet, and it bans begging in certain places in town, while Trenton and Newark ban begging both citywide and in particular sites. Atlantic City and Trenton also ban sleeping in public city-wide.

“Our constitution prohibits laws that punish the peaceful speech of homeless and destitute people,” said cooperating attorney Emily Goldberg, Pro Bono Director of McCarter & English, LLP.  “Fifty years ago, this country declared a war on poverty, but now it seems that towns like New Brunswick have declared a war on the impoverished.”   

The case, captioned New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness & Fleming v. New Brunswick, was filed in Middlesex County Superior Court.

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