LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled against an Arkansas anti-loitering law that opponents say unfairly targets panhandlers, siding with a lower court judge who called the measure “plainly unconstitutional.”
A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the preliminary injunction U.S. District Court Judge Billy Roy Wilson issued against the 2017 law, which expands the definition of loitering to include anyone asking for charity or a gift in a harassing or threatening manner that’s likely to cause others alarm or create a traffic hazard.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas sued the state over the ban on behalf of two panhandlers who said they were afraid they would be prosecuted for asking for money under the law. The court ruled Wednesday that the panhandlers would likely succeed in proving that the measure violates the Frist Amendment.
“Being poor is not a crime, and today’s ruling affirms that people have a constitutional right to ask for help,” Holly Dickson, ACLU of Arkansas legal director and interim executive director, said in a statement. “On behalf of our plaintiffs and all Arkansans, we’re grateful and relieved that this unconstitutional effort to criminalize poverty has been struck down once and for all.”
The state argued that the measure still allowed begging in many forms and that Arkansas had a compelling interest in preventing begging that could create traffic hazards and threaten people.
“The attorney general is disappointed with the 8th Circuit’s ruling against Arkansas’ common-sense loitering statute that prevents abusive and harassing panhandling practices,” Rebecca Jeffrey, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said in an email. “She is reviewing for further action.”
In a dissent, one of the three judges said the injunction should have only applied to the two panhandlers challenging the law and not prevent the state from enforcing the law statewide.
The 2017 measure was enacted after Wilson struck down a previous begging ban in the state’s loitering law.