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July 19, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, NM - Yesterday, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Robert Brack ruled that an anti-panhandling ordinance passed by the Albuquerque City Council in 2017 violates First Amendment Free Speech protections. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and Goodwin Procter LLP filed a lawsuit against the ordinance in January 2018, alleging that the law—cloaked in the language of public safety—had the intent and effect of suppressing lawful speech and criminalizing panhandling on public property.

“This is a significant victory, not just for free speech, but basic fairness and human compassion,” said ACLU of New Mexico Legal Director Leon Howard. “These types of unconstitutional laws not only erode the right to express oneself in public places, but endlessly cycle those on the margins of society in and out of the criminal justice system. If we wish to see less poverty on our streets, our society needs to do the hard work of addressing the systemic and underlying drivers of poverty—not just make it illegal to be poor in public.”

In his decision, Judge Brack writes:

"In sum, pedestrian safety is a concern and a valid government interest in Albuquerque. Pedestrians who choose to stand, seek donations, or hand out leaflets in any area where increased physical proximity to vehicles benefits their expressive activity may be taking on more risk than individuals who choose to do so from the sidewalk. Still, prohibiting all access to these spaces on the ground that Albuquerque struggles with troublingly high rates of pedestrian-vehicle conflicts, without presenting any evidence beyond anecdotal and personal speculation that the ban would actually reduce the number of such conflicts in the City and that less sweeping restrictions would not suffice, runs afoul of the First Amendment."

In the lawsuit, the ACLU of New Mexico represented plaintiffs Rhonda Brewer, who derives an important source of income from soliciting donations in places prohibited by the ordinance; Mary O’Grady and David McCoy, who regularly provide donations to those in need in areas affected by the ordinance; and Mariss Elyse Sanchez, who displayed political signs and distributed political literature to vehicles at stop lights, activities prohibited by the ordinance.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in this case include ACLU-NM Staff Attorney Maria Martinez Sanchez, ACLU-NM Legal Director Leon Howard, and cooperating attorneys Kevin P. Martin, Jaime A. Santos, Gerard J. Cedrone, Christopher Herbert , and Martin C. Topol of Goodwin Procter LLP.