August 20, 2014
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Gilles Bissonnette, 603-224-5591
CONCORD — The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today in federal court in Concord against the Town of Hudson on behalf of Jeffery Pendleton, a homeless man who resides in the Nashua/Hudson area. The lawsuit seeks to end Hudson’s unconstitutional practice of detaining, harassing, threatening, dispersing, and citing panhandlers in violation of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Mr. Pendleton and other panhandlers have a constitutional right to peacefully panhandle in public places without fear of arrest, prosecution, retaliation, and interference by the police.
This lawsuit follows the receipt of documents from the Town of Hudson pursuant to NHCLU Right-to-Know records requests. What these documents uncovered was disturbing. From March 2011 to March 2014, at least 12 Hudson police officers in at least 18 separate incidents (13 of which took place from September 2013 onward) instructed panhandlers that panhandling was illegal or that a permit was required to panhandle. These panhandlers were then told to be “on their way,” and at least two panhandlers – including Mr. Pendleton – were cited and directed to go to court. However, there is no state or town law that makes panhandling in public places illegal or requires a permit for this form of expressive activity.
Hudson’s practices are also targeted at the poor and homeless, like Mr. Pendleton. For example, while the Hudson police department has cited Mr. Pendleton for engaging in peaceful solicitation, the police department has decided to allow the Hudson fire department to engage in the same form of solicitation for charity in public places without any repercussions.
“Unfortunately, the message from the Town to the poor and homeless is loud and clear,” said Gilles Bissonnette, the staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union. “Peaceful panhandling is unwelcome, and the Town believes that all panhandlers should just go back over the bridge spanning the Merrimack River to the City of Nashua.”
Courts throughout the country have repeatedly ruled that peaceful panhandling is protected expression under the First Amendment. Indeed, public streets and sidewalks have always been deemed a special place for speech under the First Amendment; as the U.S. Supreme Court has held, they are “immemorially held in trust for the public for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens.” The poor and homeless, like Mr. Pendleton, 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 Bissonnette. “But we must also recognize that asking for assistance in a public space should never be a crime. We will continue fighting to end this practice.”