Panhandler Forces New Hampshire City To Fork Over $89,000 In Lawsuit

The city of Manchester, New Hampshire, will shell out $89,000 to settle a lawsuit, after a judge called their anti-panhandling ordinance a First Amendment violation, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader Saturday.

The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Legal Assistance on behalf of Theresa Petrello over a ticket issued by the police for panhandling.

Manchester police started issuing citations in 2015 to panhandlers under the state’s disorderly conduct law. Later that year the city’s aldermen passed an anti-panhandling ordinance. The law was championed by then alderman Joyce Craig, who is now mayor-elect.

U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty ordered the Manchester Police in September to stop using the disorderly conduct law unless panhandlers stepped into the street or obstructed traffic. McCafferty also declared the law that outlaws panhandling unconstitutional. The case was officially dismissed last week.

“I feel that I was treated very unfairly by the Manchester police and its officials,” Petrel said in a statement. “I was treated like a criminal, but I am not. I feel like this targeting was done simply because my peaceful speech annoyed, angered, and made others feel uncomfortable.”

Petrello was panhandling on a roadside in June 2015 and cited for “one count of disorderly conduct for obstructing vehicular traffic.” Petrello is a military veteran of both the Navy and Army and had a  disability that caused her to leave her housekeeper job. She ran out of money waiting for disability benefits from Veteran’s Affairs, the original complaint said, so she turned to panhandling. The sign she held while panhandling read “Veteran. Have Proof. Anything Will Help Please.”

“This settlement is a victory for free speech, as well as recognition that cities and towns need to stop criminalizing poverty in violation of the First Amendment,” said New Hampshire ACLU legal director Gilles Bissonnette in a statement.

Part of the money will go to paying legal fees, but the rest of the money will go to Petrello.

The city will look for other ways to stamp down panhandling. The city has installed signs urging people not to give to panhandlers and rather to give to a charity, according to WBZ-TV, a Boston-based CBS News affiliate. The signs warn that the panhandling money could lead to drug overdoses. New Hampshire has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic.

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