ACLU Filed Suit Against City of Parkersburg Regarding Veteran

Updated 4 years ago From Press Release

 CHARLESTON, WV- The American Civil Liberties Union Liberties Union of West Virginia Foundation (ACLU- WV) filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to prevent the City of Parkersburg from prosecuting and fining needy people for peacefully requesting spare change from passersby on public sidewalks. The plaintiff, Charles Kelly, is a disabled veteran who has been cited and fined by the Parkersburg Police for standing in public, holding a sign saying: “Disabled Veteran, Please Help. Bless You.”

The lawsuit challenges Parkersburg Ordinance 347.28, which makes it a crime to solicit charitable donations on the most used and visible public sidewalks and pedestrian walkways in the city. The complaint charges that Parkersburg police officers enforce the ordinance to prevent needy individuals from exercising their freedom of expression, under the guise of safety concerns.

“The ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment” said ACLU of West Virginia Staff Attorney, Sarah Rogers. “However, the Parkersburg police are going well beyond that. Prosecuting people because they are poor or homeless and in need of charity is not only wrong, it’s illegal. The United States Supreme Court has clearly stated that the First Amendment protects requests for charity.”

Rogers pointed out that “there are adequate state laws in place that prohibit harmful conduct that could accompany charitable solicitation, like harassment or obstruction of traffic. So even if there are genuine concerns about safety, as a practical matter, there is no need for local laws that target certain individuals or certain forms or expression based on the message being conveyed.”

According to the Complaint, Mr. Kelly needs to request charitable donations in order to pay for his basic living and medical expenses, but fears that he will face prosecution or heavy fines for doing so. In the filings, Mr. Kelly asserts that when he panhandles, he stands or sits on his pocket stool on the edge of the sidewalk, peacefully holding a sign. He says that he does not get in the way of traffic or pedestrians and he does not get upset or bother the people that don’t give him money. He says that he thanks the people that do give him donations, and values the opportunity to converse with people that cannot afford to help him but wish to learn more about his situation or experience in the military.

This lawsuit comes after the ACLU of WV launched a statewide investigation into municipalities that criminalize charitable solicitation. The ACLU reports that other cities agreed to stop enforcing such unconstitutional ordinances after being contacted by the ACLU. The City of Parkersburg has continued to target and prosecute individuals for peacefully soliciting charity, according to the complaint.

 ACLU affiliates in other states have successfully challenged similar ordinances, including Michigan, Virginia, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Nevada.

 The plaintiff is represented by Sarah Rogers, Staff Attorney of the ACLU of WV Foundation and cooperating attorney, Walt Auvil.

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