ACLU sues to block new Indiana panhandling law

A new Indiana law that effectively bans panhandling in downtown areas effective July 1 is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. The organization claims that in addition to panhandlers, it and other organizations whose members personally collect donations would be broadly banned from doing so if the law takes effect.

The ACLU said in a news release announcing the proposed class-action suit that House Enrolled Act 1022, signed into law last month by Gov. Eric Holcomb, infringes on First Amendment rights to solicit for contributions that have been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the ACLU and three ACLU staff members who solicit donations in downtown Indianapolis during the celebration of Constitution Day, claims HEA 1022 targets particular First Amendment expression in a blatantly broad, vague, and unconstitutional manner,” The ACLU said. The suit seeks a declaration that the law is unconstitutional, and injunction blocking it from taking effect and attorney fees, among other requested relief.

The suit seeks establishment of a class of panhandlers bringing claims against the superintendent of the Indiana State Police and a subclass asserting claims against the ISP superintendent and against the mayor of Indianapolis and the Marion County prosecutor. The case has been assigned to Indiana Southern District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson.

Asked for comment on the case, the Indiana Attorney General’s Office said in a statement, “It is the duty of the Office of Attorney General to defend the constitutionality of state statutes in court. We are reviewing the lawsuit and will respond as appropriate.”

Named plaintiffs in the suit are ACLU of Indiana director Jane Henegar, director of advocacy Kathryn Blair and director of philanthropy Neil Hudelson. The ACLU said that while handing out copies of the Constitution, ACLU staff and volunteers have solicited donations, and Indiana’s new law defines this behavior as panhandling.

“This new law has been painted so broadly that it prohibits our organization, the ACLU of Indiana, from collecting donations on Indy’s Monument Circle. But we know what this law truly aims to do is even worse,” Henegar said. “It is sometimes difficult to confront the face of poverty. But we must assist those who suffer the consequences of America’s income inequality and failed mental health system, not sweep them out of sight.”

The law prohibits solicitations of money within 50 feet of a place where financial transactions take place, which ACLU of Indiana legal director Ken Falk said “leaves virtually no sidewalks in downtown Indianapolis or any downtown area in any Indiana city where people can engage in this activity which courts have recognized is protected by the First Amendment.”

The law also bans solicitations of money within 50 feet of public monuments, which the ACLU argues could preclude it from future solicitations of contributions during Constitution Day events, traditionally conducted on Monument Circle in Indianapolis on Sept. 17.

Despite the current norm of social distancing, Falk said, “We understand that we are living in especially challenging times across the state of Indiana as we fight an ongoing pandemic. While it is clearly inappropriate for individuals to be approaching fellow Hoosiers on the street at this time, we must be sure that once we return to some form of normalcy, individuals rights are intact.”

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