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Mountain State Justice files suit over Morgantown ‘panhandling’ law

MORGANTOWN — Mountain State Justice, a statewide nonprofit legal services and advocacy organization, has filed suit against the city of Morgantown in the Northern District of West Virginia, claiming the city’s enforcement of a 2005 panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional. 

According to a press release, the suit has been filed on behalf of Anthony Rowand and similarly situated persons for violating his rights pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  

The release states, “Morgantown, like many communities in West Virginia and throughout the nation, is experiencing a homelessness crisis: a crisis that is felt most acutely by our neighbors who are living it each day. As the crisis has grown in visibility, so have government efforts to shame, drive out, and ticket, fine, and arrest our neighbors for experiencing poverty and illness in public. Such is Anthony’s story.” 

The city actually has two panhandling laws on the books. This suit specifically targets a law passed in July 2005 prohibiting the solicitation of persons traveling in vehicles on public rights-of-way.  

In 2012, the city passed an ordinance outlawing aggressive solicitation, which limits how and where an individual can ask for money or other objects. 

In this case, the law in question states it’s illegal to ask for money or other objects of value by any means with the intention of the money or objects being transferred from an occupant of a vehicle within a public roadway at that time and place. It also outlaws standing in any portion of a public right-of-way to solicit business, goods or money. 

“The city has ramped up efforts to criminalize panhandling — constitutionally protected speech — by invoking and enforcing a 2005 facially unconstitutional ordinance that banned the practice. The city, by and through the Morgantown Police Department, ticketed Anthony as many as seven times under the ban since June 2023, once ticketing him twice in one day,” the press release states. “Anthony, who is the primary caretaker for his disabled partner, is wholly reliant on solicited charity for survival: absent the contributions of others, Anthony and his partner don’t eat.” 

Rowand is seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and individual damages. 

“As the Supreme Court today considers the limits on punishing people for experiencing homelessness, we want West Virginians who are struggling to know that we’re in their corner,” MSJ staff attorney Lesley Nash said. “Soliciting charity is speech protected by the First Amendment and we aim to protect that right in Morgantown, Monongalia County, and through West Virginia.”  

The Dominion Post reached out to the city. Morgantown Communication Specialist Hollie Gregory said the city does not comment on potential or pending litigation.

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