Panhandlers and Their Lawyers

ENCINO PATCH - Just between us, what do you really think about panhandlers in the neighborhood?

How do you really feel about people sitting in front of a post office with a cardboard sign that reads, "Illegally Evicted."

Or people standing outside the doors of Ralphs with a dog and a sign that reads, "Dog needs surgery. Please help." How do you feel about people who stand on the median strip in the middle of Topanga Canyon Blvd. asking for money from drivers stopped at a red light? How do you feel when people come up to you in the parking lot of WalMart or Sprouts or Pavilions or Macy's and ask if you have any change?

It almost doesn't matter how you feel about it because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled some time ago that panhandling is speech, and no state law or local ordinance may ban it. If local authorities are willing to go to court and fight for years, they can try to persuade federal judges that they have a "compelling" reason to restrict panhandling, one that outweighs the "fundamental" right of free speech.

The US Supreme Court uses a compelling-versus-fundamental balancing test to decide whether certain state laws are constitutional. This is based on a legal theory called the Incorporation Doctrine, which was first floated in 1925. Prior to that, the First Amendment didn't apply to the states at all, and the federal courts had no power to pass judgment on the constitutionality of state laws on panhandling.

Given the legal restrictions on their actions, states have taken different approaches to the problem.


(The rest of Susan Shelly’s column … including whether panhandlers have 1st Amendment rights …here)

Vol 10 Issue 62
Pub: Aug 3, 2012