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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hudson town, police accused of violating panhandler’s rights in federal lawsuit

The town of Hudson and its police department were sued in federal court Wednesday over the treatment of panhandlers in town and what advocates called a clear violation of protected free speech rights.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Concord on behalf of Jeffrey Pendleton, a homeless man who often begs for money in Nashua and Hudson. The suit accuses the town and its police officers of routinely harassing and detaining panhandlers since 2011, despite a long history of court rulings that say panhandling is protected speech, according to Gilles Bissonnette, an NHCLU staff attorney. ...

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The town of Hudson and its police department were sued in federal court Wednesday over the treatment of panhandlers in town and what advocates called a clear violation of protected free speech rights.

The New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Concord on behalf of Jeffrey Pendleton, a homeless man who often begs for money in Nashua and Hudson. The suit accuses the town and its police officers of routinely harassing and detaining panhandlers since 2011, despite a long history of court rulings that say panhandling is protected speech, according to Gilles Bissonnette, an NHCLU staff attorney.

“In this case, what we clearly have is a practice by the Hudson Police Department of suppressing peaceful panhandling speech that’s being engaged in by poor folks that live in the Nashua-Hudson area,” Bissonnette said, describing the practice as “quintessential free speech activity.”

Town officials initially declined to comment because they hadn’t seen the lawsuit itself. Town Administrator Steven Malizia said the town’s attorney told him Wednesday morning that he had gotten a call about a suit regarding panhandlers, but he hadn’t seen specifics by Wednesday afternoon.

Malizia said he believes town police were concerned about panhandlers or other gatherers affecting traffic but referred questions about specific tactics to Police Chief Jason Lavoie.

Lavoie declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Pendleton, 24, originally from Palestine, Ark., moved to the Nashua area in 2009 and became homeless in 2013 after divorcing his wife and losing his job. He is part of a group of people who routinely gather at the intersections in Hudson and Nashua, particularly near the border between the towns, at the busy intersection of the Taylor Falls and Veteran’s Memorial bridges, and hold signs asking for money, according to the lawsuit.

Pendleton and others have said Hudson is unfriendly to panhandlers. According to the suit, Pendleton in particular has been cited by police officers for violating a town ordinance against soliciting and illegally ordered to stay off all traffic medians in the town permanently.

Hudson selectmen briefly considered enacting an anti-panhandling ordinance last year. It was proposed by Selectman Benjamin Nadeau after he said he saw an accident caused by someone stopped at a green light handing money to a panhandler.

“We’ve talked to the police department on a number of occasions, and it’s becoming a big problem,” Selectman Ben Nadeau said at the board’s Nov. 26 meeting.

The suit alleges that police issued a court summons to Pendleton on Nov. 14 for “selling on state property without a license.” That charge was placed on file at Nashua district court. The suit also enumerates 18 incidents during which 12 Hudson officers either told panhandlers it was illegal to beg in Hudson or that they needed a permit. Four of the encounters happened after Nadeau called police to report seeing panhandlers, according to the suit.

Nadeau, too, declined to comment, having not seen the suit.

“It’s the first time I’ve heard of it,” he said.

The suit also quotes Nadeau and Board of Selectmen Chairman Roger Coutu from board meetings in November and December when they discussed writing an anti-panhandling ordinance that wouldn’t preclude charity groups from soliciting donations. During that meeting, Coutu said “the image (panhandling) projects coming into the community is not a good one,” according to the suit.

Coutu expressed the same sentiment when contacted about the lawsuit Wednesday.

“I understand the plight of the needy. I am not convinced that everyone out there panhandling couldn’t get a job,” he said.

“If you have the ability to stand on the street with the humidity and the heat we’ve had, you have the ability to work,” Coutu said. “There are plenty of jobs out there. I wish people would just not get in the way of traffic and just go get a job. I don’t want to sound mean, but it is what it is.”

Coutu said he had reconsidered his position on an anti-panhandling ordinance after speaking with officials in Lowell, Mass., who had a similar ordinance generate a lawsuit there.

“That’s why I didn’t do it,” Coutu said. “I thought it was better not to get ourselves involved in litigation and hopefully it would go away.”

The NHCLU suit alleges that the towns’ response to panhandlers is directly targeted at the needy. Hudson firefighters conduct a “boot drive” each year asking motorists to place money in a uniform boot for the American Muscular Dystrophy Association, and politicians solicit votes from some of the same medians panhandlers are barred from using, according to the suit, which also mentions the recent demonstrations by Market Basket employees on Lowell Road, as well as anti-immigration protests at the town’s Fourth of July celebrations.

“It’s very problematic that what that demonstrates, unfortunately, is that this policy is targeted at some of the most unfortunate populations in the Nashua-Hudson area,” he said. “One of the prices of living in a free society is we encounter speech that we don’t like, but we tolerate it, and we must tolerate it for the First Amendment to mean anything.”

Bissonnette said the NHCLU worked with Rochester city officials earlier this year when they were considering enacting an anti-panhandling ordinance. Officials scuttled the proposal after the “constitutional defects” in it were pointed out, he said.

“We’ve been doing this work on a statewide basis,” Bissonnette said. “We’ve been very concerned whether law enforcement is acting like there are anti-panhandling ordinances in place where there are none.”

That’s precisely what has been happening in Hudson, Bissonnette said.

Joseph G. Cote can be reached
at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Cote
on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).