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Homeless File Suit Against Sacramento County

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

William Murphy (center) says he has been arrested twice for illegally panhandling in Sacramento County. He says he approached no one, but did hold a sign asking for work or help.

Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio

The ACLU has filed suit on behalf of three plaintiffs against Sacramento County for First Amendment violations.  The suit claims a new ordinance that was enacted to target aggressive panhandling instead prohibits all panhandling while exempting non-profits from the law.

William Murphy has been homeless since October.  He says he has been arrested twice in Sacramento County for carrying a sign.

"It said, 'Homeless. Will Work. Have bike. Will travel.' And it had my phone number so people could actually contact me if they had jobs for me and it said 'Please help' on the bottom." 

Attorney Alan Schlosser with the American Civil Liberties Union says a law that allows non profit organizations to ask for money but prohibits non-aggressive panhandlers from doing so is unconstitutional.

"If there's any kind of behavior, that can be singled out. But not their message," Schlosser says.

The ordinance was adopted by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in May. The law says aggressive behavior that likely causes a reasonable person to fear bodily harm or loss of property is illegal.  It also lists places where all panhandling is banned: within 35 feet of a bank or ATM, 50 feet of a bus stop, and 200 feet of an intersection.

Murphy says the law is unfair to the homeless.

"They really don't have anywhere to turn, but you're still telling them that they have to go away, that they can't just ask their fellow man for help," Murphy says.

The American Civil Liberties Union says non-aggressive panhandlers and non-profit organizations should have the same right to ask for money in public places.

The ACLU says it expects the lawsuit to go before a judge within 30 days. 

Click here to see the lawsuit online.