A civil rights attorney and homeless advocate is threatening to sue Barberton over a broad prohibition on panhandling.

In defending Samantha Stevens, who police ticketed in February for asking a McDonald’s customer for 40 cents to catch the bus, Attorney Becky Sremack made the case that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize poor people for asking for help in public.

On Wednesday, prosecutors dropped the fourth degree misdemeanor charge of soliciting alms, which carried up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

Having settled her client’s case, Sremack turned her legal attention to the 1980 law that bans begging for change on the public streets and sidewalks of Barberton.

“So long as this unconstitutional ordinance remains on the books, citizens who are down on their luck remain exposed to criminal prosecution and police harassment,” Sremack wrote in a letter Thursday, asking Barberton Mayor Bill Judge, Law Director Lisa O. Miller and Council President Craig Megyes to repeal the law. “Indeed, a review of the police blotter in the recent editions of the Barberton Herald makes plain that the Barberton police routinely threaten residents with prosecution for asking others for help. This is patently unconstitutional and an absurd misuse of taxpayer money and city resources.”

Judge said he’ll ask City Council to repeal the law against panhandling.

“We’ll be discussing that Monday. I don’t see any reason that it won’t be repealed,” Judge said.

Sremack, who is known in Akron for representing a tent city of homeless residents called Second Chance Village, said she is prepared “to file a lawsuit” if city leaders do not act. The case is now about more than her client, a 24-year-old married mother of one who lives in an apartment on Second Street in Barberton.

Other laws repealed

Laws forcing panhandlers to register and wear badges or stay away from intersections, bus stops and ATMs have been challenged and repealed in Fairlawn, Akron and Cleveland in recent years. These laws limited panhandling while Barberton and other communities have old rules that flat-out ban begging on sidewalks.

Advocates for the poor point to a 1941 United States Supreme Court ruling striking down general prohibitions on soliciting donations. In 1976, the justices overruled limitations that said only “recognized charitable causes” could receive donations, allowing the poor to solicit donations alongside major corporations.

But the Barberton law goes further, said Joe Mead, a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio who challenged anti-panhandling rules in Akron and Cleveland.

“[In Barberton] we have a more fundamental problem, which was recognized by the Sixth Circuit [federal] court of appeals in 2013,” said Mead, who teaches law at Cleveland State University. “You can’t blanket ban the solicitation of donations in any town.”

Harm to city

Opponents of panhandling say it tarnishes the image of the city and discourages local business. Advocates and civil liberties lawyers aren’t surprised that some communities still have decades-old rules banning panhandling. But they’re surprised to hear that Barberton, or anywhere else, is still enforcing them by jailing and fining panhandlers.

“At this point, every city that has these laws still on the books should put an immediate moratorium on their enforcement, then rescind them, and no city should be considering passing new laws,” said Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

“The message from the courts is clear: if your community has problems with panhandling, the constitutional answer is not to criminally penalize those who are forced to beg for donations, but rather to address the underlying needs of why people are panhandling in the first place. When people have their basic survival needs met, they won’t need to panhandle any more.”

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.