Monday, May 28, 2012

Judge to make decision on Arcata panhandling law; ordinance remains a rift in city politics

Grant Scott-Goforth/The Times-Standard

A Humboldt County Superior Court judge will rule on the constitutionality of Arcata's panhandling ordinance, which limits the locations where people are allowed to panhandle and carries penalties for aggressive panhandling.

The ordinance was the subject of a lawsuit by Richard Salzman that went to trial last week.
Salzman's Attorney Peter Martin has until June 4 to submit a supplemental brief, at which point the judge will have 90 days to issue a decision on the case.

Martin said Salzman wants the law to be struck down as unconstitutional, any convictions under the law set aside and any fines levied against violators returned.

”I think the city of Arcata went too far, and I hope the judge will see it that way,” Martin said.
Salzman said he had no objection to the parts of the ordinance that ban aggressive panhandling such as touching someone, following them or blocking their way.

”I'm very sensitive to how inappropriate behavior is offensive,” Salzman said.

He said the ordinance goes too far with restricting the language allowed on signs.

”As a layperson, my feeling about it is they're trying to restrict what the signs say,” Salzman said, adding that political protest signs and advertisements don't face similar limitations.

”Somehow a sign that says 'hey buddy can you spare a dime?' offends sensibilities?”

Salzman said the aggressive panhandling that most agree is unacceptable should not be lumped in with holding signs.

”That's the most passive form of panhandling,” Salzman said.

Arcata City Councilman Mark Wheetley, who voted for the ordinance, said it was developed based on research and surveys of municipal panhandling ordinances throughout the country.
”It didn't come without a lot of careful review and consideration,” Wheetley said.

Wheetley still supports the ordinance but could not speak specifically about the litigation the city is engaged in with Salzman.

”It wasn't done in a vacuum,” Wheetley said. “I have received lots of positive feedback since it went into place.”

Vice Mayor Shane Brinton voted against the ordinance when it was enacted in 2010.

“I've continued to maintain the position that the ordinance may be unconstitutional,” Brinton said. “At the very least, it violates the spirit of the First Amendment.”

Brinton did think there was a legal precedent for the prohibition on aggressive panhandling.

Brinton said he couldn't comment on the merits of the Salzman case or its arguments, but added he would rather have seen the ordinance never enacted to save the city from having to defend it.
”I'm not really enthusiastic about any of this,” Brinton said.

Arcata City Manager Randy Mendosa said that as of Thursday, the city had spent $4,988 defending the ordinance, though that figure would rise as the trial hours had not yet been billed.
Mendosa said the ordinance has been successful for the city, cutting down on the “bad behavior factor.”

”Anecdotally, people seem fine with it,” Mendosa said. “I haven't heard any other complaints.”
Arcata Police Department Lt. Ryan Peterson said enforcement of the law mostly comes in the form of education. Police officers' first response is to inform people where they can and can't panhandle, and Peterson said most are compliant.

”The number of citations issued for panhandling is extremely low,” Peterson said. “What this gives the community is the ability to notify the police if there is an aggressive panhandler. It's certainly not designed to eradicate panhandling.”

Peterson said enforcement of the ordinance is complaint-driven, meaning officers only respond to public calls regarding panhandling. He said the majority -- more than 90 percent -- of calls are related to aggressive panhandling.

”Those are the kind of calls that really are frustrating,” Peterson said.

Salzman said that he will appeal if the judge rules against him. He says it's the first time he's been involved in a court proceeding but that it was his only recourse when the city council rejected his request to change the language of the ordinance.

”If they overstep their bounds of authority, I'm going to go to the judicial branch to rectify that incursion on our constitutional civil liberties,” Salzman said. “I feel I'm being a patriot.”

Grant Scott-Goforth can be reached at 441-0514 or

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Unusual Lawsuit: Can City Silence An Already Silent Request?

Unusual Lawsuit: Can City Silence An Already Silent Request?

Arcata, California--Is it illegal to merely hold up a sign asking for

The City of Arcata thinks it is, but a citizen lawsuit contends the city
overstepped its bounds and its panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.

Arcata taxpayer Richard Salzman, who filed a lawsuit in Humboldt County
Superior Court against the normally ultra-liberal city, said: “If
first they silence the poor and the homeless, and we say nothing, who
will speak up when they try to silence rest of us?”

He noted that the section of the ordinance against “aggressive
panhandling,” including blocking one’s path, any physical contact or even
yelling, would be left unchallenged by his legal action.

But to achieve the city’s goal of criminalizing the 'speech'--or even a
mute appeal--of a few beggars, Arcata has criminalized all charitable
solicitations for money.

Salzman said, "The ironical aspect is that Arcata so far has
spent around $10,000 of the taxpayers' money defending a law so one
would not have to to read a sign asking, 'Buddy, can you spare a
dime?' How insane is that?"

The judge overruled an objection by the city's attorney and allowed a
photo to be entered into evidence that illustrated the absurdity of the law during
the trial on May 23rd 2012.

The court has 90 days to rule on the case. The losing party will then
have the opportunity to appeal.


NBC affiliate KIEM News Ch3 lead story

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Court date set for anti-panhandling lawsuit against City of Arcata

Richard Salzman stand across from City Hall in violation of the current law.

Arcata, CA–Is it illegal to merely hold up a sign asking for money?

Arcata thinks it is, but a citizen lawsuit contends the city overstepped its bounds and its panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.

The free speech trial is set to begin at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23rd, in Humboldt County Superior Courtroom 8–and the public is invited to attend.

On March 17th 2012 The Arcata City Council adopted the unlawful panhandling ordinance. As written, the ordinance makes it a crime to merely hold up a sign asking for money. By denying citizens constitutional right of free speech, this lawsuit filed by Richard Salzman contends the City Council overstepped its authority.

Salzman is being represent in this matter by Peter Martin. Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Salzman are board members of the Humboldt Civil Liberties Defense Fund which was created to defend against incursion of the civil liberties of all citizens of Humboldt County.

“If first they silence the poor and the homeless, and we say nothing, who will speak up when they try to silence rest of us?” Salzman asked.

He noted that the section of the ordinance against “aggressive panhandling,” including blocking one’s path, any physical contact or yelling, would be left unchallenged by this legal action.

Specifically, Mr. Salzman contends that AMC Sections 4282B, 4282C, 4282D, 4282E, 4282F and 4282G are unconstitutional. The overall impact of these sections is to criminalize begging in a significant percentage of the City.

Begging is a charitable solicitation. The First Amendment clearly protects charitable solicitations. No distinction of constitutional dimension exists between soliciting funds for oneself and for charity. The fact that a beggar keeps the money she receives does not strip the speech of First Amendment protection. A speaker’s rights are not lost merely because compensation is received; a speaker is no less a speaker because she is paid to speak.
To be lawful, the ordinance must serve a compelling interest that is narrowly drawn to achieve its end. The City’s compelling interest is well-served by the ordinance’s ban on aggressive panhandling, to which Mr. Salzman does not take exception. Mr. Salzman is of the view that ordinance’s ban on begging is not “narrowly tailored.” To achieve the City’s goal of criminalizing the speech of a few beggars, the City has criminalized all charitable solicitations for money. 

The picture above illustrates the problem with the Ordinance. It is OK to hold a sign offer to sell pizza, but Mr. Salman’s sign is illegal.

KIEM Ch 3 news coverage of Anti-Panhandling Lawsuit against City of Arcata

KIEM Ch 3 news coverage of pending lawsuit:

Is it unconstitutional to be told that you cannot panhandle in certain areas?

Well the city of Arcata will answer to the superior court of Humboldt County next week in regards to an ordinance that some say violate freedom of speech.

Taxpayer Richard Salzman, says the city of Arcata has taken the law, too far. According to the litigation council for the city of Arcata: the city has taken the position that it falls in the guidelines of the Constitution--that under the constitution, you can restrict panhandling but not restrict the message.

They also say panhandling is a type of solicitation that California recognizes as retractable for reasonable limitation on time and place.

The ordinance restricts panhandling within 20 feet of places such ATMs, banks, retail entrances, and street corners. The city’s council says it’s mainly restricting the business side of the Arcata plaza and surrounding areas., The Free Speech Trial is set for Wednesday, May 23, 2012.