In an important victory against the criminalization of poverty, the ACLU of Rhode Island today announced the favorable settlement of a lawsuit filed last year against the City of Cranston, challenging a city ordinance barring the solicitation of donations from motorists. In a consent judgment entered in federal court today, the City acknowledged that the ordinance violated the free speech rights of Michael Monteiro, who is disabled and supplements his disability payments by soliciting charitable donations.

Monteiro has occasionally stood on a median on Plainfield Pike holding a sign that reads: “disabled, need help, God bless.” Last June, a Cranston police officer saw Monteiro soliciting donations, wrote him a court summons for violating the ordinance, and ordered him to leave the area. The officer further told Monteiro that he would be arrested if he returned to solicit donations. A Municipal Court Judge ultimately dismissed the charge, which carries a fine of up to $200, but told him to stay away from the area.

Under the consent judgment formally approved today by U.S. District Judge John McConnell, Jr., the ordinance was declared unconstitutional, and the City agreed to notify all police officers of the judgment and their obligation to refrain from enforcing the ordinance. The consent judgment also includes an award of attorneys’ fees and $1,500 in damages to Monteiro for the violation of his rights.

The lawsuit, filed last December in U.S. District Court by ACLU volunteer attorney Marc Gursky, argued that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague, infringed on free speech rights, and was enforced selectively by targeting “panhandlers” trying to make ends meet while allowing other individuals and groups to solicit motorists while fundraising for various causes.

ACLU of RI volunteer attorney Gursky said today:  “I’m pleased that Cranston has acknowledged that its panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional and unenforceable.  I hope other communities, like Providence, don’t politicize the issue.” 

In response to a threatened ACLU lawsuit, city officials in Providence recently agreed to halt enforcement of that municipality’s panhandling ordinance, although at least one City Councilperson and a prominent developer have criticized the City for doing so.

A copy of the consent judgment is available here.