Lakewood has put off a fix for the city’s aggressive-begging law, which the state Supreme Court partially invalidated last year, because the American Civil Liberties Union is concerned the proposed rewrite might be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court case stemmed from a citation that Lakewood police issued to Robert Willis for panhandling at a Lakewood freeway ramp almost six years ago.
Willis’ lawyer had argued that two provisions of Lakewood’s ordinance prohibiting begging on roadways were vague and violated his client’s free speech right.
The state Supreme Court agreed, holding that a freeway ramp is a public forum and saying the city’s law had imposed “a content-based speech restriction in a substantial number of traditional public forums.”
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City Attorney Heidi Wachter advised the City Council earlier this month to repeal the aggressive-begging law and replace it with a traffic ordinance that says no person may enter roadways to distract drivers and interrupt the flow of traffic.
Mayor Don Anderson, not happy about taking orders from the state’s highest court, instead proposed the city keep its panhandling law but amend it to answer legal concerns.
“This Supreme Court is very activist in attempts to legislate policy rather than interpret the law,” Anderson said.
The council was due to consider edits to the existing law Tuesday. But before the council could act, the city received word that ACLU of Washington officials objected to the city’s approach.
ACLU spokesman Doug Honig told The News Tribune that the council’s proposed changes could continue to target panhandlers and make “it a crime to engage in constitutionally protected speech.”
“It is entirely unclear what conduct is made a crime by the words ‘interrupting or distracting.’ That confusion is an additional constitutional violation,” Honig said. “Under the ordinance, ‘buy mattresses’ is not a crime, but ‘need help’ is. That is what the Constitution prohibits, yet the proposed new Lakewood ordinance seems to allow that.”
Nancy Talner, the ACLU’s senior staff attorney, sent the city a letter requesting a delay in the City Council’s approval of the rewrite to give the organization a chance to review and comment on the new wording.
The City Council agreed to delay its decision until April so that city attorneys can meet with the ACLU to review its concerns.
Wachter said she doesn’t know yet whether the city will change course based on the ACLU’s concerns. But it’s better to hear out the group now than spend money on litigation later.
“I don’t want to pass something until I fully know what they’re saying,” Wachter said, adding that, in the end, the city and the ACLU “may agree to disagree.”
Michael Simpson: 253-597-8670, @mlintonsimpson