The ACLU of Massachusetts, along with the law firm McCarter & English, is challenging the City of Fall River’s use of a state statute to criminalize poverty. According to the lawsuit, the City aggressively enforces an unconstitutional state law making it illegal for people to ask for money for their own financial support beside public roads.
The Massachusetts statute targets people experiencing homelessness and punishes them for asking for money from cars. The statute exempts selling newspapers or, with a permit, other items. It also exempts requests for charity made by nonprofit organizations. This imposes distinctions based on content, which the Constitution does not allow. The ACLU lawsuit argues these requests for help are constitutionally-protected, and Fall River’s enforcement is therefore unlawful.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and two Fall River residents currently experiencing homelessness. During 2018 and into 2019, members of the Fall River Police Department have filed more than 150 criminal complaints against some of the city’s most vulnerable residents for standing by the side of roads with signs and accepting donations from nearby drivers.
Several courts throughout the country have ruled that this speech is protected under the First Amendment and the state constitution. The lawsuit follows two ACLU of Massachusetts victories in Worcester and Lowell, where federal judges struck down local “anti-panhandling” ordinances as unconstitutional.