Berkeley's "Poor Laws" 1995

Vote No on N & O signBerkeley Drops Anti-Solicitation, Anti-Sitting Laws;
Council's Vote Will Settle ACLU Class Action Lawsuit

For Immediate Release: May 14, 1997 SAN FRANCISCO --

In a move applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and other advocates for the rights of the poor, the City of Berkeley City Council has agreed to repeal its controversial ordinances that prohibited sitting and peaceful solicitation on the streets of Berkeley.

The Council's action will end the federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU-NC in 1995 challenging the two municipal ordinances that criminalized peaceful solicitation of money and sitting or lying on sidewalks.

ACLU-NC Managing Attorney Alan Schlosser, who argued the case before the U.S. District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, applauded the City Council's decision. "The First Amendment guarantees that all people, poor and rich alike, have the right to publicly express their beliefs and ask for help and financial support of others for their cause or for themselves," he said..

"A law that makes the panhandler sitting silently with a sign a criminal is a law that has gone beyond constitutional limits," Schlosser said. "Especially at a time when laws targeting the poor and homeless criminalize peaceful sidewalk activities are proliferating throughout the Bay Area, Berkeley's move is especially forward-thinking and humanitarian."

Attorney James B. Chanin, spokesperson for the Berkeley-Albany-Richmond-Kensington Chapter of the ACLU-NC, noted the commitment and activism of many in the community were responsible for the change in the Berkeley laws.

"This result could not have happened without the combined efforts of numerous community organizations and totally committed individuals who were determined to do something to try and reverse a tide of repressive legislation against poor people that has swept the nation over the last decade," Chanin said. "We are pleased that these laws will no longer add to the misery of poor people, and will allow community organizations access to the streets of Berkeley without fear of police harassment and criminal prosecution."

The suit, Berkeley Community Health Project (also known as the Berkeley Free Clinic) et al. v. City of Berkeley, was filed on February 27, 1995 -- two days before the laws were to go into effect -- on behalf of the Berkeley clinic; Copwatch; the Green Party; and Toni Catano and Chris Stanley, indigent, physically disabled individuals who because of their disabilities need to sit on the sidewalk when they ask for charity from passers-by.

The City Council repealed in entirety the ordinance prohibiting sitting and lying on sidewalks; it also repealed the sections of the anti-solicitation ordinance that prohibited solicitation after dark, within six feet of a building and from persons exiting or entering automobiles. The revised ordinance now only prohibits soliciting in a "threatening" or "coercive" manner and within ten feet of an ATM machine. The settlement also provides $110,000 in payment to the ACLU for attorneys' fees.

"People have a right to walk on the sidewalks of Berkeley without being intimidated or threatened," explained Schlosser. "The ACLU has never opposed narrowly drafted ordinances that punish intimidation, or obstruction or trespass. However, city laws should not be used as a tool to silence the voices of the poor who rely on charity to help them survive or to move poor people out of the downtown area because of their appearance."

"We hope that this victory will stop other cities from singling out poor people and grassroots organizations for discriminatory restrictions on their fundamental right of free speech," said attorney Harry Bremond of Wilson, Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, a Palo Alto law firm that served as ACLU cooperating counsel. "As our economic problems refuse to abate, and the numbers of poor continue to rise, more and more cities are passing laws which criminalize poverty by punishing people simply for doing the things they have to do in order to survive," said Bremond, noting the recent passage of anti-begging or sitting laws in Palo Alto, San Jose and Santa Cruz.

After the filing of the lawsuit, both ordinances were originally enjoined by U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in May, 1995; the City appealed the preliminary injunction against the anti-solicitation ordinance to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. On December 9, 1996 ACLU-NC Managing Attorney Alan Schlosser argued before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit that because Berkeley's anti-soliciting ordinance limits the protected First Amendment activities of poor people and grass root organizations, the injunction barring its enforcement should remain in place. At the time of the settlement, a decision was pending. The appeal will now be dismissed as moot.

The ACLU-NC suit was litigated by Schlosser, Berkeley attorneys James B. Chanin and Osha Neumann and cooperating attorneys Harry Bremond, Sarah Harrington, Sandy Roth, Joanne Scully and James Yoon of Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati.

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