398225 03: A panhandler begs for money December 5, 2001 in downtown Cincinnati. The city of Cincinnati is trying to come up with ways to combat the problem of panhandling which they say is keeping people from coming downtown to do their Christmas shopping. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)
JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge has rejected a southwestern Missouri city’s request to dismiss a lawsuit challenging panhandling restrictions that the city has since scrapped.
Joplin argued that the suit no longer applied because the city did away with the ordinance barring panhandling within 150 feet (46 meters) of intersections on busy streets, the Joplin Globe reported.
But U.S. Judge Douglas Harpool wrote in the ruling issued this month that an “after-the-fact change in policy or conduct” wasn’t sufficient grounds to dismiss the lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed on behalf of Christopher Snyder. The ACLU argued that the ordinance infringed on Snyder’s First Amendment free speech rights.
According to the lawsuit, Snyder and his wife became homeless after he lost his job in 2016. After that, they lived in their car and obtained basic necessities by asking strangers for donations. When the ordinance was in force, they were displaying signs such as “Anything helps, God Bless,” according to the lawsuit.
The couple had learned of a potential housing opportunity, but before they could apply for the aid, Snyder received two warnings from police about the panhandling. The City Council had been told that police would issue a warning, and then a ticket, but would make an arrest on a third violation.
“I was so scared of being arrested that my wife and I left Joplin and lost an opportunity to find stable housing through an organization,” Snyder said in a written statement. “Our rights shouldn’t be threatened because we asked for help.”
Harpool wrote that the court takes note of the retraction of the panhandling ordinance but said it “does not remove the alleged injury suffered by plaintiff as a result of its prior enforcement.”
He also wrote that it does not prevent future enforcement of a similar restriction.
The two sides would have to try to settle the case through mediation before it could go to trial.