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Friday, August 29, 2014

Hudson officials agree to stop ordering panhandlers off town property while civil rights lawsuit continues

HUDSON – Town officials have agreed to stop telling panhandlers they can’t ask for money on public property while a lawsuit by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union plays out in federal court.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro granted a motion filed by the town and NHCLU called a stipulated preliminary order that shows the town has agreed to not prohibit Jeffery Pendleton, or anyone else, from panhandling in public, including not issuing no-trespass orders or ordering them to go “on their way,” so long as it doesn’t interfere with traffic or encroach on business entrances, according to court documents. ...

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HUDSON – Town officials have agreed to stop telling panhandlers they can’t ask for money on public property while a lawsuit by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union plays out in federal court.

U.S. District Court Judge Paul Barbadoro granted a motion filed by the town and NHCLU called a stipulated preliminary order that shows the town has agreed to not prohibit Jeffery Pendleton, or anyone else, from panhandling in public, including not issuing no-trespass orders or ordering them to go “on their way,” so long as it doesn’t interfere with traffic or encroach on business entrances, according to court documents.

The NHCLU sued the town last week on Pendleton’s behalf, accusing the town, its police department and two officers of violating the homeless man’s free speech rights by banning him from begging for money in 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.

Town officials have not commented on the suit so far and the agreement granted this week specifies that the town is not admitting to any liability. The agreement merely avoids the expense and effort of battling over a preliminary injunction.

“Basically, it’s just a step so everyone doesn’t have to go to court and spend legal dollars,” Town Administrator Steve Malizia said.

Pendleton, 24, a native of 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 gathers at 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.

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 Selectman Benjamin Nadeau called police to report seeing panhandlers, according to the suit.

The temporary agreement filed this week specifically says the town and police officers will not cite a town ordinance banning solicitation or a state law requiring certain licenses, according to court records.

Hudson selectmen briefly considered enacting an anti-panhandling ordinance last year.

It was proposed by 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,” Nadeau said at the board’s Nov. 26 meeting.

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.”

The suit accuses the town, police department and officers of violating Pendleton’s first, fourth and 14th amendment rights protecting free speech and due process and against unwarranted search and seizure, according to court documents.

Bissonnette said multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have ruled that standing with a sign asking for donations is a protected form of speech. A person’s decision to donate or not is their own, he said.

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