On Tuesday, Lake Worth Beach city commissioners voted 4-1 to move forward with a motion to repeal two controversial panhandling ordinances. The decision comes as the city faces pressure from a pending lawsuit filed by Southern Legal Counsel on behalf of four homeless Lake Worth Beach residents. Municipalities across the country have been facing similar suits, and there’s no reason to expect an ebbing of the legal tide any time soon.
The current suit against Lake Worth Beach alleges that the city’s panhandling and right-of-way ordinances infringe upon the First Amendment right to free speech. At the core of this suit is the 2015 Supreme Court verdict in Reed v. Town of Gilbert which narrowed the government’s ability to limit free speech as it relates to signage. While the Reed verdict was related to signs posted by churches, law firms around the country are now citing it as precedent for suits filed on behalf of clients who are panhandlers.
Lake Worth Beach’s suit was granted stay for 60 days on Aug. 19. A federal judge has ordered that the city’s panhandling and right-of-way ordinances be repealed before Oct. 18. If the city fails to do so, the case will go to trial which would be a costly—and likely futile—endeavor.
“There’s a possibility that we would lose and it would cost money,” said Lake Worth Beach City Attorney Glen Torcivia during Tuesday’s city commission meeting.
So far, no defendants in any municipality have won similar lawsuits. Last year, West Palm Beach paid $89,000 to settle its panhandling case. Palm Beach County paid $10,000 in settling a similar dispute. Fort Lauderdale is currently in the midst of a lawsuit challenging its panhandling ordinance.
More South Florida cities are likely to face similar legal dilemmas. Palm Beach County sheriffs stopped enforcing the ordinance in Lake Worth Beach in January in an effort to prevent lawsuits, but to no avail. Delray Beach passed its own ordinance last year to stop “aggressive” panhandling and Boca Raton has an ordinance that prohibits soliciting money or sales from someone in a vehicle. Even if these ordinances are not enforced, they’re still on the books and thus open to legal attack.
During Tuesday’s city commission meeting, Lake Worth Beach Mayor Betty Resch voted in favor of moving forward with the repeal on the grounds of practicality. Since the ordinance has already gone unenforced since January and keeping it would only cost the city money in legal fees, the only logical step forward would be to repeal. Commissioners Diaz, McVoy and Stokes joined in assent. Commissioner Sarah Malega gave the only nay vote, and urged the commission to table the matter until the city’s legal team could draft a new ordinance.
Therein lies the dilemma.
A new ordinance would have to pass a level of Constitutional muster that has so far eluded city legislators. Indeed, it is unlikely that Lake Worth Beach would be the first to draft such an ordinance that could withstand federal scrutiny.
“There is not going to be a single ordinance that we can write that is going to be the silver bullet that solves this problem,” said Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz, “if that’s what people are expecting I think they’re going to be disappointed.”
Critics of the panhandling ordinances in Lake Worth Beach—and others like it—argue that the rule criminalizes poverty. Homeless individuals who are arrested and cited for soliciting funds get stuck with outstanding court fees and are unable to access homeless shelters if they have a bench warrant for unpaid fines. Supporters of these ordinances argue that panhandlers create an unsafe environment for citizens and a burden on local businesses.
More than 70 comments were read during Tuesday’s meeting from Lake Worth Beach residents and business owners, many of them expressing a desire for a solution that strikes the delicate balance between public safety and the welfare of homeless individuals. Others asked for a replacement ordinance while some argued that such ordinances create more systemic barriers for homeless individuals.
Lake Worth Beach will hold the final vote on repealing the ordinances during their Sept. 20 city commission meeting.