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Charlottesville Panhandling Lawsuit Heads to Court of Appeals - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Charlottesville Panhandling Lawsuit Heads to Court of Appeals

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Arguments over Charlottesville's panhandling and soliciting ordinance will go before a judge Wednesday.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond will hear arguments in a case challenging begging restrictions on the downtown mall.

The Clatterbuck v. Charlottesville case has been going on for two years now.  It started out as a challenge to two provisions of the Charlottesville soliciting ordinance passed in August 2010. One restricts people from asking for money in an outdoor cafe area or a vendor table, and another prohibits solicitation within 50 feet on either side of Second and Fourth streets – which cross the downtown mall.

Jeff Fogel, cooperating attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia, says his clients are challenging the second provision.  The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are five homeless men – Albert Clatterbuck, Christopher Martin, Earl McCraw, John Jordan, and Michael Sloan.

"We have not challenged on appeal the section of the ordinance prohibiting solicitation from people standing at vending tables and eating at cafes, principally because the city came in with a very narrow definition of what would be prohibited, which is essentially you have to stick a card in somebody's face to be guilty," Fogel said.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent Charlottesville from continuing to enforce the ordinance, damages, and attorney's fees.

Fogel says they are entitled to the same right as Salvation Army bell ringers, soliciting donations often less than 50 feet from the restricted area listed in the ordinance.  

"There is no question that the courts have concluded that begging constitutes free speech, in much the same way that the charitable solicitors are entitled to free speech.  When the Salvation Army rings their bell on the downtown mall seeking solicitations, they're seeking solicitations for the poor.   The same principal applies when the poor is seeking solicitations for themselves," he said.

The attorneys representing plaintiffs say this is an example of evidence they never got to present, after their case was dismissed in federal District Court in January 2012.

"Well we didn't have the opportunity to test the evidence the city claimed to have existed - they never presented it - and we never had the opportunity to present it," Fogel said. "And that's a very dangerous precedent and that's really the focus of the argument before the court of appeals tomorrow."

Fogel says the case was prematurely dismissed, after brief review of Charlottesville City Council meeting videos representing the arguments of downtown businesses, not the city itself.

"The city did not come in to justify it, but sought to dismiss the complaint and asked the judge to look at the proceedings before the city council, in which a variety of people got up – many of them private parties – saying why they thought the city should restrict free speech, but we have no direct evidence from the city as to why it did so," he said.

Fogel says the court will take three to four months to decide on the case. If they win, the city would be required to file an answer to their complaint and they would be able to question and test the evidence.  If they lose, they must decide whether or not to petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We have reached out to the city for comment, but have not yet heard back.

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