Lawsuit seeks to shut down Seminole panhandling ordinance

A Seminole County panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional, a federal lawsuit claims.

A Seminole County panhandling ordinance has led to 122 people — the majority of them homeless — being sent to jail for 858 days and charged nearly $40,000 in court fees and fines, according to a new federal lawsuit filed by two homeless men who have retained pro bono attorneys to attempt to shut down the policy.

“We do not think that arresting and jailing homeless people is the right way to address the homelessness problem,” Gainesville-based attorney Dan Marshall told Florida Politics in an interview. “Putting them in jail doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t help the county. It doesn’t help the homeless people themselves. And of course, the taxpayers are spending lots of money to incarcerate people. And so it doesn’t help them either.”

Seminole County Commissioners passed the 2015 ordinance to stop “aggressive panhandlers.”

“Aggressive panhandling is disturbing and disruptive to residents and businesses and contributes to the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places,” County Attorney Bryant Applegate said when the ordinance passed, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

People face up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine if they ask for money while they block a pedestrian’s path, tap a car window, intentionally block traffic or repeatedly solicit for money after being turned down. Panhandlers also aren’t allowed to do any unwanted physical touching among other rules spelled out in the ordinance.

But the new lawsuit filed Wednesday by Rodney Wilson and Carl Faustin argues the ordinance is unconstitutional and targets panhandlers holding signs without bothering anyone. The right to freedom of speech is being violated, the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit argued some of the behavior targeted by the ordinance — like unwanted physical contact — are already criminal statutes on the books, such as assault and battery.

Marshall’s Southern Legal Counsel challenges panhandling and homelessness ordinances across the state, including one ongoing lawsuit in Daytona Beach where a U.S. District Judge issued a preliminary injunction last year saying the city cannot enforce its panhandling ordinance.

Seminole County does not comment on pending litigation, said spokesperson Andrea Wontor.

Wilson and Faustin rely on strangers to give them cash, clothes, food and hygiene products for their survival.

“Homeless & hungry, God Bless,” Faustin’s sign says when he stands near businesses in Seminole County’s Fern Park area.

Faustin had been injured and underwent knee surgery that kept him out of work. He fell behind on bills and lost his apartment. Without a permanent place to live to show an employer, he struggled to find another job. It fed into a cycle of homelessness.

“Down today, Please help,” Wilson’s sign says.

The lawsuit said, “Mr. Wilson has been warned on multiple occasions by Seminole County Sheriff’s deputies that he cannot ask for charity at public places in the County. Wilson has been told that he is violating the Ordinance prohibiting panhandling. Deputies have threatened him with arrest if he did not stop panhandling.”

Because of the threat of getting arrested, the two men are scared to be out on the streets with their signs, the lawsuit said.

“Mr. Wilson has been chilled in the exercise of his constitutionally protected rights to free speech and expression in quintessential public forums,” the lawsuit said, arguing public streets, sidewalks and roadways have First Amendment protection “because of their historic role as places of discussion and debate.”

For Faustin, his sign signals he needs help.

“He wants to express that he is hungry and does not want to be invisible,” the lawsuit said.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .


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  • LexT

    June 7, 2024 at 9:29 am

    I think we should carefully balance safety with First Amendment Rights. A panhandling transaction should not interfere with traffic or put panhandlers in arm’s length of automobiles. At the same time, panhandlers should be able to hold signs under the First Amendment. We also cannot allow “camping” in pedestrian areas. This is not an easy balancing act for legislatures or judiciary.

Comments are closed.


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