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City to hold off on enforcing panhandling law

The city of Albuquerque won't be enforcing its ordinance that is aimed at reducing panhandling, at least for now.

The city has reached an agreement with the ACLU of New Mexico to forego enforcing the ordinance pending the outcome of a federal court lawsuit that is challenging the law's constitutionality.

The law took effect in December and basically bars anyone standing on street corners, street medians or freeway ramps from interacting with motorists. The City Council passed the ordinance on an 8 to 0 vote. Former Mayor Richard Berry neither signed nor vetoed the bill.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit against the law on Jan. 11, alleging that the ordinance is an unconstitutional attempt to eliminate panhandling by criminalizing speech in public areas where solicitation is common.

But the law was passed as a pedestrian safety ordinance, not an anti-panhandling law.

The Albuquerque Police Department has been in the process of training its officers to enforce the law, but it's not clear if anyone has been ticketed under its provisions.

While the law has many critics, it also has supporters, especially those who are tired of seeing panhandlers around town at major intersections.

One issue regarding the law was whether APD, which has been chronically understaffed for years, would have the resources – meaning the officers – to enforce it. Generally, officers in the field race from one 911 call to the next, with little time for anything else.

Here's the ACLU's news release on the agreement it reached with the city:

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – In a joint stipulation approved by the U.S. District Court last week, the City of Albuquerque agreed not to enforce an ordinance that went into effect on December 6, 2017, that restricts speech on medians, freeway entrances, exit ramps, and other areas within the City while litigation about the ordinance is ongoing.

The ACLU of New Mexico and Goodwin Procter LLP filed a lawsuit against the City of Albuquerque in federal court on January 11, 2018, alleging that the ordinance is an unconstitutional attempt to eliminate panhandling by criminalizing speech in public areas where solicitation is common.

“This ordinance has always been about pushing homeless people and poor people out of public view,” said ACLU of New Mexico Staff Attorney, Maria Sanchez. “We’re relieved that with this agreement in place Albuquerque’s most vulnerable residents will be able to exercise their constitutional rights without fear that they will be harassed, cited, or arrested by the police. Through our lawsuit, we’ll continue fighting to ensure the ordinance is declared unconstitutional and permanently stricken down.”

The joint stipulation prohibits law enforcement from arresting, charging, or prosecuting anyone pursuant to the ordinance. It further prohibits law enforcement from ordering anyone to leave any public place or refrain from panhandling, political advocacy, or similar activities or using the ordinance as a threat in an effort to convince an individual to leave a public place. The City agreed to publicize the terms of the stipulation to its employees, departments, and officers and to ensure they abide by its terms.

In turn, the ACLU and its five named plaintiffs in the lawsuit withdrew the Motion for a Preliminary Injunction filed in January and agreed to give the City until March 5, 2018 to respond to the complaint.

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