Judge rules panhandling law is unconstitutional

A Medford panhandling ordinance that prohibits solicitation of money at intersections and other locations is unconstitutional, a Jackson County judge has ruled.

Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia's four-page order, issued March 19, found Medford's ordinance specifically violated Article 1, Section 8, of the Oregon Constitution, which prohibits passing any law restricting freedom of speech.

"I think it's important for government officials to understand that they cannot prohibit expression because they find it offensive," said David Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. One of the ACLU's members filed the suit.

Mejia is expected to issue a formal judgment soon that will spell out what actions the city will have to take. Medford officials already have told officers to stop citing panhandlers in light of the judge's ruling.

Solicitation of money, said Fidanque, is a form of expression protected by the Oregon Constitution. Ashland had a ban on panhandling that the city lifted in 2007 because of similar fears that it violated the state constitution.

If Medford doesn't appeal the ruling, Fidanque said panhandlers would be able to ask for money again at intersections and freeway off-ramps.

"We're disappointed," said Medford police Chief Randy Schoen. "We were looking out for the majority of folks impacted by this."

He said the city enlisted the help of a lawyer who has worked with the ACLU in re-crafting the ordinance this year so that it would stand up to constitutional tests.

Despite the rewrite of Municipal Code No. 5.258, Judge Mejia stated it didn't stand up to constitutional tests and he didn't find it particularly well-written.

"As originally drafted, (section) 5.258 was somewhat convoluted, interspersing definitions between prohibitions," he stated. "As amended, the statute is more so."

The city will decide whether to rewrite the law to bring it in line with the judge's ruling or appeal the decision, said Schoen.

"Judge Mejia is a good man of character," said Schoen. "He made his opinion based on his interpretation and judgment of the law."

However, Schoen said Medford based its ordinance on other cities that have successfully written laws prohibiting panhandling at intersections.

Schoen said Medford's efforts to ban panhandling received overwhelming support from citizens worried about safety concerns at intersections.

Panhandlers once again will be able to solicit money at both the north and south Medford interchanges. Schoen said he suspected panhandlers would start showing up once the word gets out.

He said a few accidents had been reported because of panhandlers interfering with traffic in the past, but "it was nothing of epidemic proportions."

City Attorney John Huttl said Medford officials won't decide on the next step to take until Mejia issues a judgment.

Huttl said the judge did uphold a portion of the ordinance that prohibits aggressive panhandling, which the ACLU didn't oppose.

Medford created the ordinance in January 2008 after receiving complaints from citizens about panhandlers at intersections and at freeway off-ramps.

The suit was filed by Medford resident Derek Volkart, an ACLU member. Portland attorney Justin M. Thorp of Martin, Bischoff, Templeton, Langslet & Hoffman LLP represented Volkart pro bono.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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