An amputee and the American Civil Liberties Union have challenged Belton’s ban on begging, saying the anti-panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.
A lawsuit filed last week in federal district court says Roger Walker, a 67-year-old Kansas City man who uses a motorized wheelchair due to the loss of his left leg, saw his right to free speech blocked when seeking donations in Belton. Walker’s complaint asks the court to award him unspecified damages and declare a Belton ordinance unconstitutional.
Police Chief James Person referred questions to City Attorney Megan McGuire, who said Wednesday the city was reviewing the lawsuit and had assigned the case to outside counsel, attorney David Baker.
McGuire could not say whether Belton was considering repealing or revising the ordinance. Baker could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The suit is a recent step in the ACLU’s crusade against cities that seek to ban panhandling.
Closer to home, the ACLU has taken on statutes in Springfield and Bolivar, Mo. There, attorneys also said ordinances banning people from asking for money, food or other donations violate rights to free expression and due process guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth amendments.
In both cases, city officials voted to repeal the ordinances in question.
The Belton ordinance, which has been around for decades, states: “No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride, employment, business, donations or gratuities from the occupant of any vehicle. The restriction shall not apply to organizations, social clubs, civic groups, school groups, etc., conducting legitimate fundraising events.”
Tony Rothert, an attorney with the ACLU of Missouri, said the ordinance should be repealed.
“What Belton has done is put some content-based restrictions in a law about traffic safety,” Rothert said. “Certainly there can be a law about traffic safety, but it cannot discriminate on the basis of messages.”
According to the complaint, a panhandling Walker ran afoul of the law twice in Belton before suing.
The first time, the suit says, was on a highway shoulder in summer 2014, when a Belton police officer told Walker that he would face arrest, be fined and see his wheelchair impounded if he panhandled again in Belton.
Walker’s complaint says he stayed out of town for almost two years, fearing arrest and prosecution.
But in April, seeking to raise $500 for a wheelchair battery, Walker returned bearing a sign that said: “Any help would be a blessing. Thank you.” Again a Belton police officer stopped and told Walker he would be arrested if he didn’t leave, the suit says.
Rothert, the ACLU lawyer, said Walker did not want to be interviewed.
In Kansas City, the City Council enacted in 2007 an anti-panhandling ordinance, but the Kansas City Police Department refused to enforce it. The law still exists.
North Kansas City officials banned “aggressive” panhandling in 2007. That law also is still on the books.
Independence bans asking for money from people in vehicles, prohibits permitless panhandling in public parks and considers asking for money “disorderly conduct” if done “with intent to provoke a breach of the peace.”
Lee’s Summit’s city code allows panhandling if solicitors meet certain conditions, including obtaining a permit from the police chief.