Summit County repeals anti-panhandling ordinance after lawsuit

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AKRON, Ohio (WJW)- Summit County Council on Monday repealed an ordinance that effectively made panhandling illegal after it was challenged in a lawsuit originally filed by a man who is frequently seen soliciting contributions on corners in Bath Township and Fairlawn.

"I used to go out there to Bath and they said, 'Well, you can't do this no more, go back to Fairlawn,” and I said, 'Well, what if I don't?' He said, 'We will write you a ticket and we will take you to jail,'" said Leon Wilson, a former Marine who has fallen on hard times and has relied on the generosity of others to help out for the past five years.

"Under a law that Summit County passed in 2018, he wasn't allowed to do so; he wasn't allowed to receive an exchange of donation from anybody in a vehicle or even attempt to receive a donation," said Joe Mead, an ACLU cooperating attorney.

"It didn't say the word panhandling, but the way that, but the sort of behavior that it limited was exactly the sort of thing that panhandlers would do: stand by the road collect donations from cars," Mead said.

Summit County Councilman Clair Dickenson told FOX 8 News the original intent of the law was not to chase panhandlers from affluent communities like Bath Township.

"Our biggest concern is for safety of pedestrians and motorists alike. That is what we were attempting to get at with the first ordinance that we had adopted," Dickenson said.

Wilson said he understood his rights and took it upon himself to file a federal lawsuit challenging the ordinance.

"I respect their concern about safety, but it wasn't about safety. It was about they don't want us in their neighborhoods period. That's why they filed this unconstitutional ordinance," Wilson said.

The ACLU eventually joined the lawsuit and on Tuesday claimed victory after the ordinance was repealed.

"It's important, not just because it's a constitutional right to ask for a donation, but criminalizing people who are visibly poor is not an effective way to get rid of poverty. It just makes it harder to, it pushes them out of sight and that's counterproductive," Mead said.

The ordinance was replaced by another one that forbids anyone in a township right of way from impeding or obstructing vehicular traffic, and states that no one is allowed to knowingly touch or grab another person or their property without their consent.

"We listened to their arguments, made some changes and some adjustments," Dickenson said.

"I'm very happy because, as an individual, I never gave up, I stood my ground; I knew what my constitutional rights was and I'm trying to protect my rights and the rights of others. Not just me, but the rights of everybody that's in a similar situation like me — homeless, trying to support their family or need help in dire need," Wilson said.

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