Editorials, Opinion

Press pause on ‘safety’ ordinance

For months, as he has crafted his not-a-panhandling-ordinance, Monongalia County Commissioner Tom Bloom has repeatedly said his proposal is based on an Alabama law that prohibits panhandling.

So what is the Alabama law?

The better question is “which one?”

The Alabama Code of 1975 had two anti-panhandling statutes: §13A-11-9, which said someone commits the crime of loitering if he/she “[l]oiters, remains, or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging,” and §32-5A-216, which said “No person shall stand on a highway for the purpose of soliciting employment, business, or contributions from the occupant of any vehicle, nor for the purpose of distributing any article, unless otherwise authorized by official permit of the governing body of the city or county having jurisdiction over the highway.”

In February 2020, the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and National Law Center of Homelessness & Poverty filed a class-action lawsuit against the City of Montgomery, the sheriff of Montgomery County and the secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency on behalf of three people experiencing homelessness. In Singleton v. Taylor, the plaintiffs alleged that the law violated their First Amendment right to “solicit charity.”

In September 2020, the City of Montgomery agreed to a settlement in which it would stop enforcing the law within city limits, return all fees and fines levied under the law and would halt all pending prosecutions under the law. In September 2022, plaintiffs settled with the sheriff of Montgomery County, so the sheriff’s office could no longer issue tickets under the law — but that settlement only applied to Montgomery County. So the lawsuit continued against Hal Taylor, in his capacity as the secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

On March 10, 2023, the judge in Singleton v. Taylor declared both statutes “facially unconstitutional” under the First Amendment and both be “permanently enjoined” from being enforced. (This case is currently going through appeals.)

The Alabama Legislature must have seen the writing on the wall, because the month prior, lawmakers introduced HB 24: to amend §13A-11-9 and §32-5A-216 to eliminate the mentions of begging or soliciting and to instead prohibit an individual from loitering on a public roadway maintained by the state or in the right-of-way of a public roadway maintained by the state and to provide criminal penalties for violations, including making subsequent offenses a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.

HB 24 was passed in May and went into effect Aug. 1. Although there are no formal challenges yet, we think there likely will be. The language within HB 24 makes it pretty obvious that the new law targets homeless individuals: Officers can let the loiterer off with a warning if they leave or offer the loiterer a ride to the nearest shelter or social service provider in lieu of arresting them. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has already made its displeasure with the new law known, saying it’s an attempt to still criminalize homelessness while getting around the injunction.

Which sounds eerily similar to what Bloom is attempting with his “pedestrian and vehicle safety ordinance.” Perhaps it would be better for Monongalia County (and its pocketbook) to wait and see how the appeals process for the original law and any legal challenges to the new law play out.