Alabama’s unconstitutional laws against panhandling violate the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protection. The SPLC and its allies filed a federal lawsuit to immediately stop the city, county and state from enforcing two statutes that prohibit panhandling.
The complaint describes how the laws make it unlawful for anyone to “beg” or “solicit,” subjecting people to fines or jail for violations. Even though the First Amendment protects charitable solicitation and begging, the city of Montgomery issued more than 400 citations to enforce the laws during an 18-month period.
Jonathan Singleton, 44, a resident of Montgomery experiencing homelessness, was cited or arrested six times for holding signs that conveyed messages such as: “HOMELESS. Today it is me, tomorrow it could be you.” Jonathan struggles with chronic illness – including kidney failure and diabetes – which makes it difficult to maintain employment, housing and healthcare. As a result, he relies on the help of others for survival. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jonathan and others who panhandle.
Each night, at least 3,200 Alabama residents, including over 230 families and 290 veterans, experienced homelessness, according to data from 2019. In Montgomery County, over 350 people are homeless on any given night. During the 2016-17 school year, at least 14,000 public school students experienced homelessness.
In 2019, the city of Montgomery passed an ordinance imposing additional penalties on panhandling, including mandatory jail time. This ordinance was later repealed by the Montgomery City Council after advocacy by SPLC, co-counsel, community groups, and clergy. Criminalizing panhandling subjects people experiencing homelessness to unaffordable fines and fees, the loss of liberty through incarceration, and a criminal record – all of which are obstacles to obtaining housing and economic security.
Panhandling laws, including Alabama’s law criminalizing begging, have their origins in vagrancy laws that were designed to criminalize African Americans after the Civil War and were used to try to suppress the Civil Rights Movement. The discriminatory effect continues today, with people of color disproportionately harmed by laws that target individuals who panhandle because of a lack of stable housing or resources.