Update: In an ACLU victory on December 15, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court unanimously struck down the statute in question, in its entirety. Read more here.
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.
On April 17, 2019, the Superior Court ordered the City of Fall River to stop enforcing the statute until a final decision in the case.
On June 21, 2019, the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Fall River defendants jointly asked the state supreme court to transfer the case to itself to decide the constitutionality of the statute. Both sides came together to file this request, recognizing the need for a statewide appellate ruling to clarify the important free speech rights being argued in the case.
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.
UPDATE: On February 26, 2020, a judge issued a "Reservation and Report," sending this case to the full Supreme Judicial Court.