If not for an attorney taking her case pro bono, a Barberton, Ohio woman’s request for 40 cents nearly landed her a 30-day stay in jail and a $250 fine under the city’s strict panhandling ordinance.
Enacted in 1980, that ordinance could be repealed by the city council next month. If not, the woman’s attorney has threatened legal action over the “unconstitutional” ordinance.
In February, Samantha Stevens, a single mother of one, was asking patrons of a McDonald’s in downtown Barberton for 40 cents so she could cover bus fare. A city police officer then issued the woman a summons for soliciting alms — better known as panhandling. Under city ordinance, it is considered a fourth-degree misdemeanor, which carries a potential 30-day jail sentence and a $250 fine.
Civil rights attorney Becky Sremack came across the incident by reading the police blotter in the local newspaper, the Barberton Herald.
“I wrote her a letter and offered pro-bono legal assistance at that point,” Sremack said. “It doesn’t really add up to charge someone criminally for asking another citizen for a small amount of money.”
Not only does it not add up, it’s also unconstitutional, Sremack said.
Laws prohibiting panhandling in public places have been repeatedly deemed unconstitutional by federal courts because soliciting or requesting money is considered protected speech under the First Amendment.
Last week, Sremack filed a motion to dismiss the charge against Stevens on the grounds that the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance was unconstitutional. City prosecutors have since dismissed the charge.
“The fundamental problem is that the government does not have the right to ban solicitation in a public place,” Sremack said. “Solicitation of money asking someone for help is free speech and is protected along with every other type of speech. It’s a basic free speech issue. The Constitution has to apply to the poor as well as to the rich.”
Sremack then took the matter a step further, penning a letter to Barberton city leaders that if the city’s anti-panhandling ordinance isn’t repealed within a reasonable amount of time, she would be filing a lawsuit against the city. According to police records, a total of 30 panhandling summonses have been issued since January 2017.
“Criminalizing is going to do nothing to reduce the need amongst the poor for help, for assistance,” Sremack said. “These resources would be better put into programs that address the underlying issue.”
City Law Director Lisa Miller told Scripps station WEWS in Cleveland on Tuesday that city leaders had begun the process of repealing the 38-year-old ordinance before Sremack sent the letter. The possible repeal of the ordinance could go before a city council committee on May 7th. A vote on the measure could come as early as May 14th.
Craig Megyes, the president of the Barberton City Council, said he anticipates that the ordinance will be repealed.
The possibly unconstitutional ordinance only applies to soliciting in public places like sidewalks and street corners. Private property owners still have the right to prohibit panhandling on their property.
“The Constitution protects speech that we like as well as speech we don’t like,” Sremack said. “Simply being made uncomfortable by seeing a neighbor in need is not enough to call it a crime.”