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Federal judge rules that Alabama laws criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional

A federal judge has issued a permanent injunction against the enforcement of Alabama statutes that criminalize soliciting donations and begging, ruling that the laws violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

“We are pleased that the court chose to permanently enjoin the state’s solicitation statutes,” said Micah West, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Economic Justice Project. “Criminalizing people for asking for help further disenfranchises those who are already facing economic hardship. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment covers ‘charitable appeals for funds.’”

In 2019, the city of Montgomery enacted an ordinance imposing additional penalties on solicitation of donations, including mandatory jail time. Although the city ultimately repealed the ordinance after the SPLC, clergy, unhoused people and other advocates organized in opposition to the law, the city continued to enforce two state statutes that also criminalized the solicitation of donations.

The SPLC, the ACLU of Alabama and the National Homelessness Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Montgomery, the Montgomery County sheriff and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to immediately stop the city, county and state from enforcing two statutes that prohibit people from exercising their First Amendment right to solicit charity in any form, including money and food, to meet their own basic needs. In the two years before the lawsuit was filed, law enforcement officers issued more than 200 citations to people soliciting charitable donations in the city of Montgomery alone.

The original lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan Singleton and two other Montgomery residents experiencing homelessness. Singleton, who relies on the help of others, suffers from chronic illness, including kidney failure and diabetes. He was arrested six times for holding signs that mentioned his situation as a homeless person and has found it difficult to maintain employment, housing and access to health care.

The city and sheriff previously settled the lawsuit and agreed to stop enforcing the laws. The federal court’s most recent ruling declared the laws unconstitutional and permanently enjoined the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency from enforcing them anywhere in the state.

“The injunction is a victory for marginalized groups that find themselves in tough economic circumstances and in need of help,” said Tish Gotell Faulks, legal director for the ACLU of Alabama. “Criminalizing the solicitation of charitable donations does nothing to advance public safety. Instead, it multiplies already existing barriers for people experiencing homelessness. This can include unaffordable fines and fees, the loss of their freedom through incarceration and a criminal record – all of which are obstacles to obtaining housing and economic security.”

Anti-solicitation laws, including Alabama’s law criminalizing begging, have their origins in vagrancy laws that were designed to criminalize Black people after the Civil War. The discriminatory effect continues today, with people of color disproportionately harmed. 

“Housing, not handcuffs, is the way to end homelessness,” West said. “It should not be a crime for our unhoused neighbors to ask for help. Rather than criminalizing people experiencing homelessness, the state should address our housing affordability crisis that is a primary driver of homelessness.”

Photo at top: A federal judge has declared that Alabama statutes criminalizing panhandling are unconstitutional and permanently enjoined the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency from enforcing them. The Southern Poverty Law Center and others previously filed a lawsuit opposing the statutes on behalf of Jonathan Singleton, pictured, and two other people in Montgomery who were experiencing homelessness. (Credit: Stephen Poff)