RALEIGH — The ACLU of North Carolina has warned Johnston County, Wake County and Raleigh that new rules restricting panhandling may be unconstitutional and has asked them to repeal the restrictions or face possible lawsuits.
The letters from the American Civil Liberties Union went out Tuesday as the Johnston County Commissioners considered an ordinance that would have required $20, a background check and a state-issued photo ID for a monthly panhandling permit, all measures the ACLU called unlawful curbs on free speech.
"There's an argument that the least among us, those who have been hit hardest and are really down on their luck, need the most protection under the Constitution," said Katy Parker, ACLU legal director.
She argued that the three sets of rules appear to outlaw panhandling rather than regulate it. Panhandlers rarely possess photo ID, a requirement for the permits in Raleigh, Wake County and Johnston County, she said.
Under Wake County's recent rules, the permits must be renewed weekly, which Parker called too heavy a burden for activity protected by the First Amendment.
Also, she said, Wake County's ordinances appear tailored only for people begging on the street for themselves rather than those seeking money for charities - a move that creates equal protection problems.
Parker invited anyone arrested under the ordinances to contact the ACLU for legal advice.
"What's happening here is the city of Raleigh, Wake County and Johnston County want to deny panhandlers the ability to do what they have a constitutional right to do."
Johnston County Commissioners passed their panhandling rules in a 6-1 vote Tuesday night, scaling back the restrictions in response to the ACLU's complaint. Johnston will still require would-be beggars to show a photo ID and pass a background check. But they dropped a requirement that panhandlers renew their permit and pay a $20 fee each month.
"I see those two things as the red flags," county attorney David Mills said.
Johnston's rules will go into effect Jan. 15 and will apply to unincorporated areas of the county.
Last week, Raleigh police arrested eight people for begging without a permit, pushing the number of panhandling citations city police have issued this year to more than 400. One person has been charged with the violation three times since July, and she told a Wake County magistrate that she was begging for money for her dying sister.
A Raleigh police spokeswoman said police were not targeting panhandlers but were enforcing the law. Public safety concerns, including beggars blocking rights of way, are chief among reasons for enforcing the ordinance. In Wake County, commissioners sought to keep beggars off dangerous roadsides and medians.
Both Raleigh and Wake County's permits are free, though Raleigh's is good for a year; Wake County's permits are good for a week.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed.