LITTLE ROCK — A challenge to Arkansas’ anti-loitering statute brought before U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson Tuesday has resulted in a portion of that law being struck down after Wilson ruled the section that prohibits begging violates the U.S. Constitution guarantee regarding freedom of speech.
The statute, 5-71-213, deals with prohibitions against rioting or creating a public disturbance, specifically, loitering, and classifies the offense as a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. (Ark. Code 5-4-401, 5-4-201.) The subsection of the statute, 5-71-213(a)(3), gives one definition of loitering to read, “Lingers or remains in a public place or on the premises of another for the purpose of begging.”
The ACLU filed the case on behalf of two men, Glenn Dilbeck and Michael Andrew Rodgers, who have been arrested in the past for panhandling. Dilbeck, a homeless man who said he is trying to pay his daughter’s medical expenses, and Rodgers, a disabled veteran, said in court paper they have been arrested after holding up signs asking for money from passersby.
The ACLU said the statute, as written, makes begging a crime in all places and in all circumstances, and as such, is overly broad to the point it infringes upon the right of free speech.
Bettina Brownstein, arguing on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said the ACLU’s contention is that the entire statute is unconstitutional, but agreed to sever the section that specifically refers to begging, and asked that Judge Wilson rule only on that section.
“We actually believe the loitering statute as a whole is unconstitutional although I think that’s something we have to reserve to fight for another day,” Brownstein told Judge Wilson during oral arguments.
The ACLU’s case was centered on the contention that the statute, because it does not define what constitutes begging, is too vague, and that it can be too broadly applied as a prohibition against begging at any time, in any place, by any person, for any reason, and as such, violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
“The statute applies all the time, day or night, anywhere,” Brownstein said. “That’s not substantially applicable, that’s universally applicable.”