SJC pans state panhandling law
Court says it unconstitutionally limits free speech
THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT on Tuesday overturned Massachusetts’s anti-panhandling statute, concluding that it unconstitutionally abridges free speech.
Massachusetts state law prohibits a person from signaling or stopping a car for the purpose of soliciting charity or selling merchandise.
But the SJC, in a unanimous decision written by Justice Barbara Lenk before her retirement, ruled that because the law allows the same conduct for other purposes – like selling newspapers or soliciting donations for a nonprofit with a permit – it illegally discriminates based on the content of speech in a public space.
“There can be little doubt that signaling to, stopping, or accosting motor vehicles for the purpose of soliciting donations on one’s own behalf poses no greater threat to traffic safety than engaging in the same conduct for other nonprohibited or exempted purposes, such as gathering signatures for a petition, flagging down a taxicab, selling newspapers, or soliciting donations for a nonprofit organization,” Lenk wrote.
The law was challenged by John Correira and Joseph Treeful, homeless residents of Fall River, and the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless, of which they are members.
Correira and Treeful have held signs on the side of the road begging for money. In 2018 and 2019, the Fall River police issued over 40 criminal complaints against the two men charging them with panhandling. Both men have been jailed because of the charges – Correira for failing to make a court appearance and Treeful for violating his probation on other charges by being charged with panhandling.
According to the ACLU, the city of Fall River had been aggressively enforcing the anti-panhandling law, filing more than 150 criminal complaints in 2018 and 2019.
The Bristol County district attorney, in a court brief, agreed that the panhandling statute was unconstitutional. The city of Fall River and the chief of police defended the statute.While the statute dates back to 1930, it has been amended more recently, in 1978 and 1990, to allow for certain exemptions. Lenk wrote that those amendments created even more of a problem. “Unfortunately, the Legislature has done so in a way that employs content-based distinctions that are not narrowly tailored to achieving its stated interest in traffic safety,” Lenk wrote.