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Lawyers in Utah find spirited debate around constitutionality of panhandling law

Legislators and city officials in Utah say the statute supports the public’s safety. Residents without homes and jobs say that the statute is discriminatory and intolerant. Lawyers in Utah and the general public have mixed feelings about the law. One homeless man in Sandy City is filing a lawsuit claiming that the statute that makes it illegal to ask for a ride, money, job or business while standing near a road is unconstitutional and violates his rights to free speech according to this report in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Filed in a U.S. District Court, the lawsuit claims that the new statute has restricted Steve Ray Evans’ freedoms in such a way that makes it impossible for him to obtain basic necessities. Evans has long held signs to ask for donations and employment in public places in Sandy, something he sees as his “work,” but now he faces up to $750 in fines and up to 90 days in jail. Lawyers in Utah like Cory Hundley will remember that this lawsuit isn’t the first that Evans has filed against panhandling laws in Utah: one in Salt Lake City resulted in District Judge Ted Stewart ruling the law unconstitutional. Later in 2012, Evans settled lawsuits with the cities of both Draper and American Fork by agreeing not to enforce the law within their city limits.

If Evans appears to be somewhat of a crusader, it is perhaps because he sees himself this way. He’s working with lawyers in Utah from the Utah Legal Clinic and the Utah Civil Rights and Liberties Foundation to have his voice heard across the state in courtrooms and conversations between politicians and friends everywhere. Evans is convinced that the anti-panhandling laws aren’t just a matter of public safety, but are a way to relegate the less fortunate members of our communities to a place that’s conveniently out-of-sight. Unfortunately (again) for those individuals that place is usually jail.

As long as the general public is willing to foot the bill for housing all the “criminally” homeless individuals whose only known and practiced means of survival is by asking for help, then some lawyers in Utah say that the anti-panhandling statues aren’t that problematic, on a constitutionality level. But Evans disagrees, and with the help of his attorneys, is taking the “free speech” avenue: that anyone has a right to be anywhere in public, peacefully, with any message—including soliciting.

And there seems to be mixed sentiment among the public, anyway. Some residents of Salt Lake are skeptical of panhandlers due to news and journalism pieces that revealed how some of the individuals soliciting jobs and money are neither homeless nor jobless. And while it’s easy to understand the sort of anger that accompanies the feeling of having been hoodwinked, Evans would argue—so what? Even if an individual works nights and pays rent, he should have the right to ask his community for whatever help he believes he needs. “Public safety,” “free speech,” or “public nuisance” – the issue has many names, but Evans, at least, is likely to take up another suit soon, since the Utah Legislature recently passed a new law that bans panhandling along state highways, freeways, and their shoulders.

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