LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A federal judge has blocked an Arkansas anti-loitering law that opponents say unfairly targets panhandlers, calling it “plainly unconstitutional” and saying that other laws address the safety concerns state officials cited as the need for the restrictions.
U.S. District Judge Billy Roy Wilson issued a preliminary injunction against the law, which expands the definition of loitering to include anyone asking for charity or a gift in a harassing or threatening manner that’s likely to cause others alarm or create a traffic hazard. The Legislature approved the measure earlier this year after Wilson last year struck down a previous section of the state’s loitering law that included a begging ban.
“I can think of no injury caused by preventing defendant from enforcing a law that is plainly unconstitutional — particularly considering other laws cover the concerns raised by defendant,” Wilson wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. “If anything, not enforcing (the measure) will save defendant (and perhaps other agencies) resources that would have otherwise been wasted prosecuting panhandlers under what appears, at this point, to be a plainly unconstitutional law.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas had sued the state over the ban on behalf of two panhandlers who said they were afraid they’d be prosecuted for asking for money under the law.
“This ruling is a victory for all Arkansans who value their First Amendment rights,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar said in a statement. “Being poor is not a crime, and asking for help shouldn’t land you in jail.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said she disagreed with Wilson’s ruling and was considering her options.
At a hearing earlier this month, the state argued that the measure still allows begging in many forms and that Arkansas had a compelling interest in preventing begging that could create traffic hazards and threaten people.
But Wilson said in his ruling that other forms of speech not banned by the measure — including stumping for political candidates or wearing costumes to solicit customers — could also cause a traffic hazard or an impediment.
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