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Attorney: Utah cities need to re-examine panhandling ordinances

Published April 10, 2012 8:03 am

Courts • Civil rights attorney who won case against state warns Lehi, Orem to comply.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After winning his case against the state's restrictions on panhandling, civil rights attorney Brian Barnard believes Utah cities need to rethink their own statutes.

Barnard had previously warned that both Lehi and Orem had crept into unconstitutional territory in restricting panhandling directed at motorists driving on city streets.

"I would hope those two cities will look at their ordinances and bring them [into compliance with the ruling]," Barnard said.

Barnard sued the state on behalf of three people who were asked by police to stop panhandling motorists for money. Salt Lake City was also named as a defendant but agreed to not enforce the state law pending the outcome of the state case.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart ruled in March that the state law banning people standing near a road from soliciting money was an unconstitutional infringement on free-speech rights. Stewart found the statute overly broad.

"The court does not dispute that the state has a legitimate and important interest in regulating conduct that occurs on busy roadways, and it may do so as long as the legislation is written so as to avoid infringing on constitutionally protected rights," Stewart wrote. "However, it may not do so through sweeping statutes that regulate conduct unrelated to the government interest."

But officials in Orem and Lehi indicated they will not be retooling their ordinances any time soon.

"Our feeling is that, although he struck down the state statute, our ordinance is drafted more narrowly," said Greg Stephens, Orem's city attorney. "But we are still OK."

Stephens said the city does not ban begging on sidewalks but does on the actual roadway.

Lehi Mayor Bert Wilson said the city has not done anything with its ordinance since Barnard first called it unconstitutional.

"It's just been sitting there," Wilson said. He said city attorney Ryan Wood has been busy working on other projects.

Attempts to contact Wood were not successful. He did not return multiple phone calls to his office.

Barnard said the Orem and Lehi ordinances appear to restrict free-speech rights in that they target people who solicit money or sell services to passing motorists.

"The [ordinances] apply to Girl Scouts selling cookies and guys [waving signs] in front of pizza shops, as well as panhandlers," Barnard said.

Stephens, Orem's attorney, said the city did not ban panhandling, but any soliciting activity in actual roadways. It also bans people from begging near ATMs and in front of businesses without the owners' permission.

The ordinance permits passive appeals for money from the sidewalk, Stephens said.

In an earlier interview, then-Orem city attorney Paul Johnson said the city also outlawed firefighters from going into the roadway to collect funds for muscular dystrophy research.

Salt Lake City attorney Ed Rutan said Stewart's ruling will be a factor if the city resumes work on its ordinance targeting aggressive panhandling.

"Anytime you legislate in the First Amendment area, you have to make sure your ordinance is narrowly drawn," Rutan said.

Salt Lake City tabled its proposed aggressive panhandling ordinance to weigh the public comments it received on the matter.

dmeyers@sltrib.comTwitter: @donaldwmeyers