FRANKFORT, Ky. — During the 2014 holiday season, Dennis Champion was cited by police for holding a homemade sign asking motorists for money along a busy Lexington street.
His plight reached the Kentucky Supreme Court on Friday, when a state assistant public advocate said the conviction for violating the city’s panhandling ordinance violated his free speech rights.
The ordinance singled out beggars, while people standing along roadways soliciting for groups or causes are spared punishment, Linda Horsman of the Department of Public Advocacy said in urging the court to strike down the local law.
“You can sell Girl Scout cookies,” Horsman said. “You can hold up political signs. You can have a sign that says ‘Free puppies.’ But you cannot hold up a sign that says ‘Help appreciated, God bless you.'”
Assistant Fayette County Attorney Jason Rothrock said the ordinance aims to protect the safety of motorists and panhandlers and ensure the efficient flow of traffic.
“If they don’t go upon the streets, they’re not covered by the ordinance,” he said.
During several rounds of questions from the court, Justice Michelle M. Keller asked if “street performers” — including those whose antics promote businesses — distract motorists as much as panhandlers.
“Maybe more,” Rothrock said.
The presence of people asking for money downtown and on main intersections has become more common, as have arrests in the city’s second-largest city, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. Last year, 325 citations were issued for panhandling, the newspaper reported, citing police records.
Similar bans on begging have been enacted by other cities across the country, and legal challenges have resulted in federal courts striking down ordinances, said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Asking for help is a “fundamental right” that should be protected speech, she said.
“It’s a very basic form of speech, asking your fellow human beings for help when you’re in a desperate situation,” she said. “And it deserves, as much as any other speech, to be protected.”
Horsman raised another issue in Champion’s case that has broader implications — whether local governments have the authority to enact ordinances that include possible jail sentences.
Horsman cited a Kentucky law that she said gives only the state General Assembly the authority to determine which crimes are punishable by jail sentences.
Rothrock countered that another state statute gives local governments the authority to include criminal fines, jail time or both for violating their ordinances.
In Champion’s case, his citation on Dec. 8, 2014, resulted in a three-day jail sentence.
A day before the state’s high court heard the Lexington case, Louisville’s panhandling law was struck down by a local judge.
Jefferson County District Judge Eric Haner ruled Louisville’s panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional because any crime carrying the penalty of jail time must be the product of the General Assembly, The Courier-Journal reported. Louisville’s ordinance carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail, a $250 fine, or both.
The state justices didn’t give any indication on when they would rule in Champion’s case, but typically they issue their rulings months after oral arguments.