ACLU-NJ lawsuit leads to agreement that will end city’s ban on begging
NEWARK – A state court judge approved a settlement agreement that will end the City of New Brunswick’s unconstitutional ban on begging. As a result of the settlement, New Brunswick has agreed to repeal or amend two ordinances that made it illegal to beg in the city. As part of the agreement, New Brunswick also will make a $4,500 donation to Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based organization that provides food, services and opportunities for people living in poverty, and pay $3,000 in attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ counsel.
One of the ordinances explicitly banned panhandling, while the other required a permit to solicit philanthropic donations, violating the right to free expression. In effect, the laws criminalized poverty. With pro bono attorneys from the firm McCarter & English, LLP, the ACLU-NJ brought the case on Dec. 19 on behalf of John Fleming, a wheelchair-bound homeless man who lives in New Brunswick and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. Fleming had received citations for holding a sign that said “Broke – Please Help – Thank You – God bless you.”
“The Constitution protects the right to peacefully ask for money, and we’re pleased that New Brunswick will respect the rights of people like John Fleming who have done nothing wrong by trying to find a way to survive,” said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “Unfortunately, other towns in New Jersey have ordinances on the books that criminalize begging, and the ACLU-NJ will work to make sure everyone’s rights are protected.”
“We commend the City for working with our team to come to an amicable resolution of our clients’ challenges to the ordinances, and are especially pleased the City agreed to make a donation to Elijah’s Promise, a group that does incredible work for the Central Jersey community,” said Nicholas Insua, a partner at McCarter & English, LLP, who along with partner Gerard Brew, led the team of pro bono attorneys serving as co-counsel in the case.
The court initially granted a temporary injunction on December 22, 2014, after Judge Frank Ciuffani expressed concerns about the ordinances’ constitutionality. As a result, the two ordinances had been temporarily halted. The settlement agreement requires that they be repealed or amended. Fleming, who relies on the charity of others to survive, received citations from police four times in less than two months, including the day the lawsuit was filed. At the time of the fourth citation, police arrested Fleming because he missed a court appearance for a previous citation.
“New Brunswick’s agreement to end its ban on begging serves as an example to towns across New Jersey that they cannot violate the rights of people in poverty,” said Deb Ellis, Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness, a plaintiff in the suit along with John Fleming. “Instead of criminalizing poverty, government should focus on cost-effective solutions like rental vouchers and affordable housing. Together with organizations like the ACLU, we’re committed to making sure every city treats every person with dignity, no matter their income.”
The First Amendment and our State Constitution protect the rights of people to ask each other for money, but hundreds of towns nationwide have ordinances outlawing the practice, including several in New Jersey, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty report “No Safe Place: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The ACLU of New Jersey is currently researching these ordinances in New Jersey’s 565 municipalities to understand the full scope of the problem.
“I’m grateful that New Brunswick will end its ban on begging, and I know that it will have an immediate effect on the lives of others who rely on the generosity of their neighbors to get by,” said John Fleming, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “No one should have to fear the police just because of what is written on their sign.”