UGA First Amendment group argues Augusta’s begging law is unconstitutional
The University of Georgia Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, along with the National Homelessness Law Center, sent a letter to leaders in the city of Augusta opposing any extension of the current ordinance on begging and request the repeal of the current ordinance.
In the letter sent to the Augusta Commission, Mayor Hardie Davis and City Attorney Wayne Brown, the clinic argues that the order violates people’s First Amendment rights by “criminalizing the innocent act of asking for charity” and “So is a restriction based on content to speech.”
The Augusta Commission discussed last month extending the current ordinance in effect since 2006. The current ordinance does not allow begging in downtown Augusta around Broad Street and the Armstrong Galleria in the Laney Walker area.
The current ordinance prohibits “aggressive begging” in which an individual makes a request while behaving in a threatening, intimidating or coercive manner.
The commission discussed expanding the ordinance to ban “aggressive begging” throughout the county, after commissioners received complaints from voters about it in other areas of the county.
A committee of the commission returned the existing ordinance to the city administrator and the planning department for review and possible revision, The Augusta Chronicle reported. Commissioner Jordan Johnson said the commission did not vote to expand the current begging ordinance.
Samantha Hamilton, a lawyer at the clinic, said she heard about the possible extension of the order through newspaper reports and decided to send a letter to officials at Augusta.
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In the letter, the clinic indicates that since the Supreme Court ruling on Reed v. Gilbert in 2015, dozens of begging orders challenged in federal court, many similar to Augusta’s, were found to be “constitutionally flawed” and resulted in the order being repealed.
“Regardless of whether the extension has actually taken effect, it is more beneficial to inform the county of the possible repercussions of an official extension of the ordinance before officially taking this step,” said Hamilton.
In late June, a federal judge suspended an anti-begging law in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on First Amendment grounds. The Miami New Times reported that U.S. District Judge Roy Altman said the defendants argued forcefully that the order was an unconstitutional restriction on speech.
Lt. Danny Whitehead of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office said most of the problems they have with beggars are when they obstruct traffic.
“The major problem we face are beggars who locate or settle on the access or exit ramps of highways and those who settle on the main roads of the state,” he said. declared. “The highway code aims to ensure the safety of pedestrians. There is a state law that prohibits pedestrians from being on the roadway. ”
Whitehead said that whenever there is an increase in the number of homeless people, like the one Augusta has experienced in recent times, there will be an increase in the number of beggars. He said the sheriff’s office receives about five calls a week about beggars on the streets.
Georgian law states that a pedestrian can only be on the roadway if he is on the crosswalk and pedestrians must be on the sidewalk. If there is no sidewalk, they must be on the right-most shoulder of the road.
“The purpose of this state law is to protect pedestrians from injury and also to protect drivers. Unfortunately, we have had our share of pedestrian deaths here in Richmond County, ”he said.
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Whitehead said it was common to see beggars at major intersections of Washington Road, Riverwatch Parkway and Windsor Spring Road. He said that whenever they got a call about beggars, they tried to approach the situation with empathy.
There have been cases where MPs have encountered professional beggars who ran away and got into a vehicle when the police arrived. He said the sheriff’s office doesn’t arrest people for begging, but if they break state law and take to the streets, they’ll quote the person.
“We approach them with empathy and try to make sure we’re doing the right thing. When it comes to getting onto the roadway and causing problems on highways and national highways, we obviously need to take action in those situations, ”he said.
Augusta’s Begging Ordinance states that behavior will be considered “aggressive” or “intimidating” if someone can be dissuaded from crossing or staying in or near an open road or place. to the public because of the fear, worry or apprehension caused by such behavior. Whitehead said the sheriff’s office does not receive many aggressive begging complaints.
Clare Norins, director of the UGA Law School‘s First Amendment Clinic, said begging ordinances are not necessary when laws already exist to prevent the problem of beggars on the roads.
“In the letter, we point out that there are already laws to prevent aggressive behavior and that it is not necessary to have this special law on begging which only applies to people who beg because it Laws already exist to combat problematic behavior, “she said.
Get out of the problem
Norins said it might be better for government officials to focus on finding solutions to homelessness and poverty rather than spending time drafting or developing ordinances that violate the First Amendment.
“In terms of solutions, we would like the city to tackle the root of the problem in terms of why there is homelessness and extreme poverty in Augusta-Richmond County and what can be done to provide people with resources so they don’t have to be begging on the streets, ”Norins said.
Earlier this year, the Augusta Commission created a Homelessness Task Force to try to tackle homelessness in Augusta.
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Johnson, who co-chairs the task force, said Thursday he had not had a chance to “dig” the letter after he and other commissioners left town for a conference last week. However, he recognizes that there is a problem with people who have to go to the streets to ask for help.
“People are in need and they are exploring multiple avenues to meet that need. The Homelessness Task Force is working to ensure that people who legitimately need services get those services, ”he said. “Begging is a problem we are well aware of, which makes the task force so important. ”
Although he did not read the letter, Johnson said the commission would ensure the new ordinance does not violate the First Amendment and will comply with the law.
Norins said if the order was expanded by the Augusta Commission, the clinic would assess the situation and decide whether to get involved. The hope is that it doesn’t happen at this point.
“We hope that by educating the commissioners and the mayor that similar, if not identical, laws across the country have been struck down by the courts, we hope they will be deterred from expanding it,” Norins said.