On January 11, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) and New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Manchester police department’s practice of detaining, dispersing, and charging peaceful panhandlers for allegedly “obstructing vehicular traffic on public streets” under New Hampshire’s disorderly conduct statute, even when the panhandlers are in a public place and do not step in the roadway.
This lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Plaintiff Theresa M. Petrello, an Army and Navy veteran who has panhandled to make ends meet. On June 3, 2015, the Manchester police department cited her for disorderly conduct after she, without stepping in a roadway, engaged in peaceful panhandling speech directed at motorists from a public place.
In addition, in a five-day period between December 1 and 6, 2015 on South Willow Street (near the Mall of New Hampshire entrance), Manchester police officers cited at least three peaceful panhandlers for disorderly conduct who were committing no crime. None of these individuals are alleged to have acted aggressively or to have stepped in the roadway. These individuals were seeking charity as the holidays approached. Instead of charity, the Manchester police department, without warning, charged them and sent them to court.
“These panhandlers are peacefully soliciting motorists from a public place without stepping in the roadway. They are committing no crime,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the Legal Director of the ACLU-NH. “Unfortunately, the Manchester police has elected to distort New Hampshire’s disorderly conduct statute far beyond its terms to detain and prosecute these individuals. In short, the department is stretching a criminal statute to criminalize an activity that is not a crime at all, but rather is protected speech.”
The Manchester police department’s practice is discriminatory and targeted at panhandling speech. As alleged in complaint, the department does not threaten to disperse, cite, or arrest (i) similarly-situated members of the public who ask motorists to slow down and pull over to buy lemonade or have their car washed or (ii) campaigning politicians or protesters who engage in speech near roadways directed at motorists.
Courts throughout the country have repeatedly ruled that peaceful panhandling is protected expression under the First Amendment. The poor have the right to peacefully ask their fellow man for money in public places, just as a person has the right to decline to make a donation.
“We can understand how difficult and at times uncomfortable it can be to face poverty on our streets,” said Elliot Berry, an attorney with NHLA and co-counsel on the case. “But we must also recognize that asking for assistance in a public space should never be a crime.”
This lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Concord, requests an injunction barring this unconstitutional practice employed by the Manchester police department.
The ACLU-NH and NHLA have a long history of opposing laws that target the poor and impact their constitutional rights. A similar lawsuit brought by the ACLU-NH against the Town of Hudson was settled in March 2015. More information on that case can be found here.