On January 11, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) and New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Manchester police department’s practice of detaining, dispersing, and charging peaceful panhandlers for allegedly “obstructing vehicular traffic on public streets” under New Hampshire’s disorderly conduct statute, even when the panhandlers are in a public place and do not step in the roadway.
This lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Plaintiff Theresa M. Petrello, an Army and Navy veteran who has panhandled to make ends meet. On June 3, 2015, the Manchester police department cited her for disorderly conduct after she, without stepping in a roadway, engaged in peaceful panhandling speech directed at motorists from a public place.
In addition, in a five-day period between December 1 and 6, 2015 on South Willow Street (near the Mall of New Hampshire entrance), Manchester police officers cited at least three peaceful panhandlers for disorderly conduct who were committing no crime. None of these individuals are alleged to have acted aggressively or to have stepped in the roadway. These individuals were seeking charity as the holidays approached. Instead of charity, the Manchester police department, without warning, charged them and sent them to court.
These panhandlers are peacefully soliciting motorists from a public place without stepping in the roadway. They are committing no crime. Unfortunately, the Manchester police has elected to distort New Hampshire’s disorderly conduct statute far beyond its terms to detain and prosecute these individuals. In short, the department is stretching a criminal statute to criminalize an activity that is not a crime at all, but rather is protected speech.
The Manchester police department’s practice is discriminatory and targeted at panhandling speech. As alleged in complaint, the department does not threaten to disperse, cite, or arrest (i) similarly-situated members of the public who ask motorists to slow down and pull over to buy lemonade or have their car washed or (ii) campaigning politicians or protesters who engage in speech near roadways directed at motorists.
This action also challenges Manchester’s new Anti-Panhandling Ordinance, which was enacted on October 6, 2015. This Ordinance—which exists in Section 70:32 of Manchester’s City Ordinances and is entitled “Passing of Items to or from the Occupant of a Motor Vehicle”—bans a person from peacefully receiving a charitable contribution from a person in a motor vehicle, even if the recipient is in a public place and is not in a roadway. The Ordinance, which is designed to suppress constitutionally-protected panhandling speech, violates the First Amendment.
On September 7, 2017, in a 65-page decision, the New Hampshire District Court struck down the City of Manchester’s anti-panhandling ordinance and police practices because they violated the First Amendment. A summary of the decision is here. In November 2017, the case successfully settled for $89,000 in attorneys' fees and damages. The settlement agreement can be found here.