Flagstaff Cops Arrest 135 People in a Year for Panhandling; ACLU Says Begging Is Not a Crime

Flagstaff Cops Arrest 135 People in a Year for Panhandling; ACLU Says Begging Is Not a Crime
via Flickr/Romeboy

For the past several years, the city of Flagstaff has been arresting homeless panhandlers in what's called "Operation 40" -- named after 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor.

After 135 arrests in one year for "loitering to beg," including the arrest of a disabled 4-foot-8, 77-year-old woman asking an undercover cop for $1.25 to cover a bus fare, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has filed a lawsuit against city officials.

"Begging is not a crime," ACLU of Arizona legal director Dan Pochoda says in an announcement of the lawsuit.

The gist of the city's "Operation 40" is captured in a 2008 Arizona Daily Sun article that opens like this:

A street-level alcoholic urinates in a public park in front of children.

Or steals liquor from a local store.

Or sleeps in the doorway of a business.

All are common sights for Flagstaff residents and police.

In an effort to cut down on petty and serious crime, Flagstaff police started an operation at the beginning of the year aimed at getting law-breaking, alcoholic transients off the street earlier in the day.

The "loitering to beg" arrests rely on a state law criminalizing asking for money or food in public, which the ACLU contends is unconstitutional on free-speech grounds.

"This statutory provision selectively criminalizes requests for money or food," the lawsuit states. "A solicitation to vote for a candidate or attend a meeting, join an organization or eat at a particular restaurant, delivered in the same manner and tone as that for money would not result in arrest or prosecution under the provision."

The ACLU alleges the law "criminalizes protected speech and prohibits a substantial amount of protected speech," and is not narrowly tailored.

The ACLU's representing the woman mentioned above, Marlene Baldwin, as well as a man named Andrew Wilkinson, who claims he was threatened with arrest in 2012 after asking to eat someone's leftovers, and Robert George Jr., a military vet who claims to go hungry out of fear of going to jail for asking. The ACLU's also representing a collective called Food Not Bombs, as several of its members claim to have been threatened with arrest for requesting donations to feed the hungry.

The ACLU's seeking a permanent injunction to keep Flagstaff officials from enforcing the law.

Check out the lawsuit below:

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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