“Sadly I think we live in an environment right now where there’s a lot of anger and a lot of hate and a lot of ignorance about issues surrounding poverty and homelessness, among other things,” said Andrew Horwitz, Assistant Dean at Roger Williams University Law School about the panhandling ordinance passed by the Cranston City Council. “And there seems to be some public thirst, sadly, for trying to move poverty out of our public vision, so we don’t have to see, on a daily basis, the economic disparities that actually exist in our society. I think it’s sad, but I think that’s what this is about.”
Horwitz was speaking outside the Cranston Municipal Court where six defendants had just entered pleas of not guilty before Judge Matthew Smith for deliberately violating the ordinance because they believe that the the law is not only unconstitutional, but cruel.
Olivia Maunier, Barbara Feitas, Gregory Morton, Melissa Dwyer, Duane Clinker and Megan Smith were all charged under the new anti-panhandling statute, “solicitation on a roadway prohibited.” They were all defended in court today by attorney Neville Bedford.
The defendants were all ticketed during an action to challenge the law back in March, near Garden City in Cranston. Police issued state level and city level tickets to about a dozen people. The state level tickets were all dismissed last month at the Traffic Tribunal. Assistant Dean Horwitz, who was issued a state level ticket during the action, said that the “charges were absurd from the outset and a flagrant violation of our constitutional rights.” Horwitz doubts that the state level charges will be refiled.
Homeless rights advocate Megan Smith was issued two city citations. As she was being ticketed on the median a woman in a van pulled up and asked what was going on. Smith handed the woman a flyer explaining the action and the police officer called her over and gave her a second citation.
“Above and beyond being unconstitutional [the ordinance is] also cruel and backwards,” said Smith, “It attacks people who are visibly poor rather than investing in housing and solutions and building the kind of community that provides a reasonable quality of life for all its residents.”
A court date was set for July 20, but the Rhode Island ACLU is expected to issue a constitutional challenge to the ordinance in federal court before then, which will stay the municipal court trials. If the federal court rules the ordinance unconstitutional, then the defendants will not have to return to municipal court.
You can watch the court appearance here: