Downtown Mall Panhandling Suit Reinstated - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

Downtown Mall Panhandling Suit Reinstated

Posted: Updated: Feb 23, 2013 09:14 PM EST

Both sides in a lawsuit over Charlottesville's panhandling ordinance are gearing up for a re-do in court.

A court of appeals has overturned the district court's decision to dismiss the case. A three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Thursday that a judge should not have tossed out the panhandling lawsuit without hearing evidence. 

Attorneys now have a second chance to build their cases before another battle in the courtroom. Attorney Jeff Fogel has been working for three years to resolve what he feels is a violation of First Amendment rights in Charlottesville.

"The court of appeals recognized our clients have a right to free speech," he said. "The downtown mall is something called a traditional public forum and therefore that limits the ability of the city to restrict free speech rights there and they have to justify it."

Fogel and his five clients are challenging the part of a city ordinance that prohibits solicitation within 50 feet on either side of Second and Fourth streets.

City Councilor Dave Norris served as Charlottesville's mayor when it passed in August 2010.

"When you're driving across the downtown mall, you are crossing a pedestrian mall and we want everybody to be mindful of the fact there are cars intruding on that pedestrian zone and when you have people coming up and asking you for money or soliciting money near those cross streets, people get distracted and we need people focused on safety," he said.

Norris says this left about 90 percent of the mall still open for soliciting. But he believes the ordinance leaves a loophole by only restricting people who beg for money.

"In hindsight, we probably should have just said no soliciting period and maybe that's what we need to do now, to revise that ordinance," Norris said.

Fogel says now the city has to file a formal answer - then both sides can move forward with the discovery stage. This could take three to four months.

If there's still a disagreement, the case would then likely go before a judge again.

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