By Joshua Ceballos December 28, 2023
Willie White was arrested three times in the last seven months by Miami police for the same charge: panhandling in downtown Miami.
White is 66 years old and homeless. At least two times when he was arrested, he was holding out a plastic cup and asking for money near a highway off-ramp near Maurice A. Ferré Park. He was taken into custody under the city’s 2010 ordinance 37-8, which prohibits “soliciting, begging, or panhandling” in the city’s downtown business district.
White has now taken the city to federal court over the law. He argues not only that the panhandling ban is unconstitutional, but also that the city has been enforcing it for years despite a six-year-old appellate court opinion that it violated people’s First Amendment rights.
“We’re asking the district court here in Miami to stop the city from enforcing this law and to declare it unconstitutional and put a rest to the law forever,” said Ray Tassef, attorney for the nonprofit civil rights group Florida Justice Institute and White’s lead attorney.
In their complaint, filed last week, the Florida Justice Institute points to a 2017 opinion from the appellate division of Miami-Dade County’s Circuit Court on a similar panhandling case.
Then, a public defender representing Andrew Toombs, a man experiencing homelessness, argued that Miami’s panhandling ordinance violated Toombs’ First Amendment right to express himself by asking for charity. A three-judge panel in the appellate division agreed with the public defender’s arguments.
“The City argues that it does not discriminate among viewpoints, that no one is allowed to solicit funds whether they are homeless or members of the girl scouts. This is an outdated view of First Amendment jurisprudence which was rendered obsolete,” Circuit Court Judge Miguel M. De la O wrote in an unanimous opinion in 2017. “Consequently, we REVERSE the trial court’s finding that the Ordinance is constitutional.”
Despite that 2017 court opinion, the Miami Police Department (MPD) continued arresting people for panhandling for years.
In 2023 alone, MPD conducted at least 12 arrests under the panhandling ban, according to arrest records in White’s court filings and records from Miami-Dade County Circuit Court. Several of those arrests were done on the same people who were picked up by police for begging just a month or a few months after their first arrest.
White’s attorneys have asked the federal court in Miami to immediately prohibit the city of Miami from enforcing the ordinance until their case is decided by a jury trial.
Laws struck down elsewhere
But Miami isn’t the only city that has tried to ban panhandling through municipal laws. In the past few years, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and cities throughout the U.S. have tried to curb the presence of homelessness by criminalizing the act of asking for money.
Many of those laws have been struck down because they attempt to limit a person’s speech based on the content of what they’re saying — but cities continue to look for new ways to write laws to prevent people from begging. After Palm Beach’s panhandling ban was declared unconstitutional, the city approved a new version of the same lawearlier this year.
Not long ago, the City of Miami was under a federal consent agreement because its police department violated people’s constitutional rights by arresting “homeless people for being homeless.” The city was released in 2019 from the historic Pottinger Agreement, which limited the ability of police to arrest people experiencing homelessness, based on local efforts to put more people in shelters.
To Tassef, panhandling bans are a waste of cities’ time and money and don’t strike at the root causes of homelessness, like the lack of affordable housing.
“The issue of homelessness and poor people being in downtown and needing assistance should be addressed through other means. Valuable city resources should not be used to take valuable police officer time away from prosecuting and arresting people who are committing real crimes,” Tassef said.
The city has not yet responded to White’s lawsuit in the federal court docket. A spokesperson for Miami’s legal department did not respond to WLRN’s request for comment in time for publishing.