American Fork is the latest city in Utah to be targeted in a federal lawsuit that says its panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.
The Utah Legal Clinic and Utah Civil Rights & Liberties Foundation filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Tuesday seeking a temporary restraining order to keep the city from enforcing its statute, which the clinic argues has the same constitutional flaws as a Salt Lake City ordinance a federal judge struck down in March. The clinic filed the action on behalf of Steve Ray Evans, who is unemployed and homeless.
Evans was one of the plaintiffs in the Salt Lake City lawsuit, which included the state as a defendant. The city settled, but the state fought on, arguing the widely used statute had a legitimate public safety purpose. U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart disagreed, and ordered the state to quit enforcing it. This summer, Stewart ordered the state to pay $40,000 to the Utah Legal Clinic for its work on the case.
Evans also was the plaintiff in a complaint filed in June that challenged Draper’s ordinance. Draper settled the lawsuit in July, pledging it would no longer enforce or prosecute cases under its ordinance. It also agreed to make a payment to the legal firm.
But American Fork "continues to enforce the statute and prosecute people for alleged violations," said attorney Stewart Gollan, who has taken over the cases from his mentor Brian Barnard. Barnard had litigated such cases until his death earlier this month.
"This is a clear violation of [a panhandler’s] First Amendment Rights and we are seeking a federal court injunction prohibiting such conduct by the city and its agents in the future," Gollan said.
"I hope that with more attention on this cities will reconsider what they know is an illegal statute," he said, and that the Utah Legislature would "take it off the books."
The newly filed complaint names several police officers and the police chief, the city, the mayor and council members and city prosecutor. It says Evans has been cited and prosecuted in numerous panhandling cases for using a sign to solicit aid while standing on public sidewalks in the city. The city’s ordinance is unconstitutional, the complaint alleges, because it bars only certain types of speech, including asking for rides, money, jobs or business.
"A violation of the statute depends solely on a person expressing the ‘wrong’ words," the lawsuit states, such as "I need work," "Homeless, please help" or "Clearance sale."
The ordinance offers police officers "no guidance" on precisely what speech is prohibited, allowing arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against those who are or appear to be homeless or unemployed and in need of help, the complaint states. That makes it vague, overly broad and discriminatory, the clinic claims.
Gollan said he was "not aware of any enforcement against anybody but panhandlers."
American Fork City Attorney Kasey Wright said Thursday that he had just reviewed the lawsuit and "it’s really too early for us to respond."
"American Fork officers were simply enforcing a state statute," he said.
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