A national legal group for the poor says Wilmington officials are likely violating its most vulnerable citizens’ constitutional rights.
State public defenders in New Castle County say Wilmington police officers are cracking down on panhandling and other vagrancy violations. They say their clients are being banned from the city’s downtown business district or the entire city as a condition of bail.
Meryem Dede is an Assistant Public Defender with the state. She said she’s represented five people in the past couple of months banned from the downtown area or the entire city. Some were re-arrested because they were unaware of the restrictions on them.
Dede said she thinks her clients have cause to sue over the geographical bail restrictions, arguing they violate their constitutional rights to travel.
“It’s a pretty broad right, it’s not always well-defined by the court," she said. "But there have been challenges to it. I think there could be a challenge to these that way. I also think there’s a direct challenge that isn’t even a constitutional argument, it’s just an argument under the way bail is supposed to be.”
The said it plans a legal challenge against the city soon, either on its own or by reaching out to the ACLU of Delaware.
ACLU of Delaware Legal Director Ryan Tack Hooper argues not only are the geographical bail orders unconstitutional, so is the city’s panhandling ordinance. He said provisions like speech restrictions, requiring panhandlers to be permitted, fingerprinted and forbidden to gather in groups of two or more violate First Amendment rights.
“It’s an unconstitutional law being used to give people unconstitutional no contact orders,” he said.
Local governments across the U.S. have had panhandling ordinances struck down since 2015 because their regulations were found to violate First Amendment rights to free speech.
Constitutional law experts agree that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Reed v. the Town of Gilbert dramatically expanded free speech protections for panhandlers. The Supreme Court ruled that most time, place, manner restrictions that used to be considered content-neutural, may not be and thus could violate the First Amendment. Courts have struck down many local government ordinances regulating panhandling since then and especially since the Norton v. Springfield case was upheld in 2016.
In a statement, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said the geographical restrictions are court ordered and warranted at times. He said he trusts the judgment of the court and the police department.