In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that content-based regulations on free speech are unconstitutional. This has been widely applied to panhandling ordinances. Indeed, according to the ACLU of Iowa, every case since brought against a panhandling ordinance -- over 25 cases -- have resulted in a ruling that the ordinance was unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, several cities in Iowa are enforcing these ordinances. In Des Moines, for example, a homeless woman was told that her sign offering free hugs was a form of illegal panhandling. The police made her pack up her belongings and move along. Other homeless people report similar experiences or even being jailed for asking strangers for help.
The ACLU of Iowa recently teamed up with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty to address the issue. The groups have sent demand letters to hundreds of cities with panhandling ordinances. The cities of Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Grimes were among those receiving the letters, but the ACLU makes clear that other Iowa cities shouldn't assume that their ordinances are constitutional just because they didn't receive a demand letter.
According to the two groups and other homeless advocates, panhandling ordinances are not only unconstitutional but ineffective. By criminalizing homelessness, they invite police intervention and interactions with the criminal justice system that can actually drive people further into debt. As a result, some cities are already working to repeal their panhandling ordinances.
"Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness," says the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. "Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities."
"No one wants to see poor people have to beg for money," the Center adds. "But until all their basic needs--food, health care, and housing--are met, they have the right to ask for help."
The demand letters were sent as part of a coordinated effort involving 18 advocacy organizations in 12 states. They target over 240 ordinances that appear to be unconstitutional under Reed v. Town of Gilbert. The ACLU of Iowa joined as part of its special project on the criminalization of poverty in Iowa.
If you have been arrested or jailed due to panhandling activity, an experienced criminal defense lawyer may be able to have the charges dismissed due to the unconstitutionality of these ordinances.