James Clark stands next to his dog, Cosmo, outside N Street Cafe in Midtown. He's been living on the streets for nearly 15 years. Today, he's holding a sign asking for food — and he claims doing this is illegal.
"I am now breaking the law. This is now an arrestable offense after three times being caught, which is hefty fines and plus up to six months in jail,” Clark said.
Sacramento passed an ordinance last November banning "aggressive panhandling.” This means people can no longer solicit money within 30 feet of a bank or ATM, or ask for food or help from anyone dining outside a restaurant. If they do, and they’re cited with an infraction more than a few times within six months, they could face a misdemeanor.
It’s not clear whether the city has begun enforcing the ordinance; records of citations were not available to Capital Public Radio by deadline. But the law is on the books, and Legal Services of Northern California and the regional American Civil Liberties Union chapter have filed a federal lawsuit against the city that claims the ordinance violates Clark's First Amendment right to ask for help.
"It's forcing him to go to different places for protected speech. And he's targeted for the content of his speech, asking for money and immediate donations. And that is unconstitutional,” said attorney Laurance Lee with Legal Services.
On Friday, the civil-rights groups filed a preliminary injunction, asking a judge to immediately halt enforcement of the law.
In a statement, the city says it will "vigorously defend the ordinance," and that its intent is to only restrict the most aggressive of panhandling.
But Clark says asking for help is harmless. “Even though it claims to target aggressive panhandling, simply holding a sign near one of these locations is now susceptible to a misdemeanor,” he said.
Back when the city council passed the ordinance, Mayor Darrell Steinberg admitted that he was conflicted and that his vote in favor was “a very close call.”
“If this ordinance was brought forward in isolation, I would oppose it,” Steinberg said at the time.