ACLU sues Medford over panhandling

Declaring a new panhandling ordinance unconstitutional, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon is suing the city of Medford and demanding it repeal the law.

"The state constitution doesn't allow laws to differentiate on the basis of the content of speech," said Brian Willoughby, communications director for the ACLU in Portland.

The lawsuit was filed in Jackson County Circuit Court Wednesday.

The city on Jan. — banned panhandling at intersections controlled by traffic lights.

John Huttl, city attorney, said city staff is aware of the constitutional provision protecting the freedom of expression, and said the ordinance is trying to regulate conduct and not stifle anyone's expression.

In 2006 Roseburg became the first Oregon city to prohibit giving money to panhandlers while driving. Violators face a $75 fine.

In 2007, Medford City Council members said they received numerous complaints from citizens about panhandlers, especially at the interstate off-ramps. Citing concerns about the impact to traffic, the council directed police and legal staff to craft an ordinance that would ban solicitation for money or other items at all intersections with traffic signals and set limits for persistent panhandlers.

The new law also bans abusive solicitation, which includes following, touching or blocking the person solicited.

The council adopted the new regulation in a 6-to-1 vote Nov. 1, with Councilman John Statler casting the no vote after an ACLU representative and others spoke out against it in a public hearing. Statler said he thought it would be a waste of city resources because someone would likely challenge it.

In correspondence in February, the ACLU requested suspension of enforcement for a Medford resident, Derek Volkart, to solicit donations at intersections this month without being at risk of arrest and prosecution. Willoughby said the organization needs an individual plaintiff to file a suit, and Volkart is a member of the ACLU.

In a Feb. 14 letter from the city attorney, Medford responded that it would not suspend enforcement of the ban on soliciting.

Medford Deputy Police Chief Tim George said the penalty is up to $1,000 for Jackson County residents, $2,000 for residents of Oregon and $3,000 for out-of-state transients (bail would be 10 percent of that amount). Police have been giving more warnings than citations, however, George said.

Between Jan. — and Feb. 19, Medford police made 33 contacts with those who were violating the code, George said. Those contacts consisted of 23 different individuals. Of those, two people were cited, one person twice. They had received several warnings before being cited, said George.

He said since the law has gone into effect, there has been a dramatic reduction of soliciting at traffic lights.

"It's not a prohibition of solicitation, it only prohibits in certain areas," he said.

The city has 30 days to file a response in Circuit Court.

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