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A homeless man won $150,000 after a judge tossed out ordinances used to target panhandlers

United States District Judge Stephen N Limbaugh utilized the First Amendment to protect Robert Fernandez's right to panhandle on a busy intersection in St. Louis County.

A homeless man won $150,000 after a judge tossed out ordinances used to target panhandlers
Image Source: Getty Images/ kevinruss

Arguing that ordinances attacking panhandlers were unconstitutional, United States federal judge Stephen N Limbaugh struck down several such laws and awarded Robert Fernandez, a homeless man from St. Louis County, Missouri, $150,000. Fernandez had previously been cited 31 times and arrested a further four times for "soliciting without a license." US District Judge Limbaugh's actions have been viewed as a progressive step towards protecting the country's homeless, who are often unfairly targeted by police and other authority figures for their living conditions. However, according to the ruling, Fernandez is legally permitted to solicit only a few days every year, Maryville Forum reports.

 



 

 

District Judge Limbaugh wrote in his ruling, "County police officers repeatedly arrested and detained [Fernandez] for engaging in protected First Amendment speech, pursuant to an unconstitutional ordinance defendant implemented and enforced." He awarded $138,515 to Fernandez's attorneys and prohibited the enforcement of two anti-vagrancy ordinances. One ordinance barred citizens from standing in a roadway for the purposes of soliciting, whereas another covered solicitor licensing. As per the Judge, the ordinances were "unconstitutional restrictions on speech." As he described in his ruling, St. Louis County only required a license for soliciting for "those asking for 'property or financial assistance' or selling or taking orders for certain items. They do not apply when people are, for example, advocating for a political cause, soliciting votes, or seeking petition signatures."

 



 

 

The county had argued that the ordinances were passed in order to ensure the safety of traffic and pedestrians, a claim Judge Limbaugh refuted. The Judge claimed in turn that "many other forms of roadside expression, such as protesting, soliciting signature petitions, campaigning, or evangelizing," could equally distract drivers. Furthermore, regarding the anti-vagrancy ordinance, he stated, "These types of vagrancy laws are 'plainly unconstitutional' violations of due process because they do not give fair notice of what is prohibited and because they lend themselves to arbitrary enforcement."

 



 

 

It must be noted that the county officials were not restricted from placing restrictions for the safety of drivers and/or pedestrians. Bevis Schock, one of Fernandez's lawyers, instead said the ordinance was "obviously an attempt to restrict speech by poor people." "[The county officials] said it was okay for a politician to stand on the side of the street and ask for money, but not Robert Fernandez," he shared. "I don't think that helped their case." Thus far, the County Council has failed in its attempts to rectify the ordinances so as to address both a lawsuit by Fernandez as well as complaints from residents and police officials about aggressive panhandlers.

 



 

 

In an email, St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick stated, "We are reviewing the decision of the Court and will then decide next steps." Fernandez, who has applied for and received a solicitor’s license before, is likely to face further issues when his license expires in six months. As per the ruling, the license cannot be renewed and limits solicitation to daytime and a maximum of three days per year at certain busy intersections. Nonetheless, he can be spotted at the northbound exit for Interstate 55 at Lindbergh Boulevard. A large amount of traffic in the area means he can make more money.