Columbus police have stopped enforcing the city’s panhandling law because of a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that attorneys have successfully used to challenge similar laws in other cities.
The Columbus City Attorney’s office told police to stop using that law, and they did on June 1, fearing that the city would be challenged in court.
“It’s an unintended consequence of a sweeping decision involving First Amendment issues,” said Joshua T. Cox, a Columbus assistant city attorney.
The decision stems from a Gilbert, Arizona, case involving a church that rented space at an elementary school and placed about 17 signs in the area announcing the time and place for services. The city’s sign regulations limited the size, number, duration and location of the signs.
The church sued, and the case eventually made it to the Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that a sign code with tougher regulations on signs directing people to a meeting of a nonprofit group than on signs with other messages could not hold up to constitutional scrutiny.
Lawyers used this decision to challenge panhandling laws. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio brought cases against other Ohio cities. Those cases led Akron, Dayton and Toledo to repeal their panhandling laws, said Joe Mead, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU. The ACLU is negotiating with Cleveland over damages, he said.
“Columbus is behind the game,” Mead said.
The problem is this, Mead said: A city’s laws prohibit people from asking for money on a corner or near an ATM, but they do not prevent people from talking about other things at the same places.
“You can sit there and insult people, or talk about Ohio State,” Mead said, but you can’t ask for money.
“The legal principle is broader than signs. It’s about the First Amendment. Anytime a city regulation distinguishes what you do based on what you are saying, it’s a problematic restriction,” Mead said.
The law isn’t used often. Just 20 cases of aggressive panhandling were filed in Columbus in 2016, and eight this year, said Melanie Tobias, an assistant city prosecutor.
The city’s decision to stop enforcing the panhandling law frustrates South Side activist Linda Henry, who has been calling the police constantly about panhandlers at Great Southern Shopping Center.
“All this does is give panhandlers permission to aggressively…