CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The ACLU of Ohio has taken aim at the city of Cleveland's panhandling laws, saying the city's increased enforcement of already unlawful ordinances has caused problems with the city's homeless population.
The ACLU says in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that two ordinances, one that puts restrictions on asking for money on sidewalks and one that affects streets and highways, are unconstitutional because they infringe on free-speech rights. It is suing on behalf of John Mancini, a disabled Army veteran, and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
The city's law affecting roadways has been in effect since 2002, while the one affecting sidewalks has been on the books since 2006. Joe Mead, an attorney working on the case for the ACLU, said the lawsuit was filed now because police officers ramped up enforcement of panhandling laws in the past few months by writing more tickets. Mead based this assertion on what he said Mancini and Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless clients have seen.
Police have issued more than 5,800 panhandling tickets between 2007 and 2015, the lawsuit says. A police department spokeswoman did not immediately provide evidence backing or refuting Mead's assertion about increased enforcement.
"Both of Cleveland's Anti-Panhandling Ordinances were crafted with the intent -- and have the effect -- of preventing panhandlers from reaching some of their target audience," the lawsuit states.
The ACLU names the city, Mayor Frank Jackson and police Chief Calvin Williams as defendants. It is asking a judge to bar the city from enforcing the law.
The ACLU also asked a judge to block the law from being enforced while the case is pending.
The case is assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent.
The lawsuit centers on Mancini, who was ticketed four times in December and January for violating city laws. Each time, Mancini was sitting on the sidewalk on Euclid Avenue holding a cardboard sign that read "wartime vet; can you please help a vet trying to get by; your help appreciated," the suit says.
Three of the tickets were dismissed and Mancini pleaded no contest to the fourth, according to the lawsuit. Officers threatened to arrest him Feb. 18 if he didn't leave while he was holding his sign at Euclid Avenue and East 14th Street, the suit says.
"Because these tickets are issued to homeless and very poor individuals who cannot pay their fines, often these individuals fail to appear at court hearings," the lawsuit says. "Upon information and belief, the Cleveland Police Department has a policy or practice of jailing these individuals."
Mead said Cleveland's laws are similar to those struck down by other courts in Ohio and across the country. They are also similar to an ordinance the city of Akron repealed in May, an action that also came in the wake of an ACLU lawsuit.
City spokesman Dan Williams said the city has received the lawsuit and is reviewing it. He said the city does not comment on pending litigation.
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