SJC Rules Massachusetts Panhandling Statute Is Unconstitutional

BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — In a case released on Tuesday morning, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state's “panhandling” statute is unconstitutional. 

The lawsuit challenging the statute was filed in 2019 on behalf of the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and two Fall River men experiencing homelessness.

The two men would stand on the side of a street with signs indicating they were homeless, while accepting donations from motorists. They were arrested several times and charged with violating the state's statute on panhandling.

Activists against the rule cited that the same statute allows someone to accept donations in the same format if they were representing other causes — like selling newspapers, or fundraising for a non-profit organization.

In a statement about the case the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union wrote, "The Massachusetts statute targets people experiencing homelessness and punishes them for asking for money from cars....[It] imposes distinctions based on content, which the Constitution does not allow. The ACLU lawsuit argues these requests for help are constitutionally-protected, and Fall River’s enforcement is therefore unlawful."

On April 17, 2019, the Superior Court ordered the City of Fall River to stop enforcing the statute until a final decision is made in the case.

Tuesday's ruling from the state Supreme Judicial Court has since declared that the statute is unconstitutional, calling it “a content-based regulation of protected speech in a public forum.”

The Massachusetts ACLU responded to the decision shortly after it was released, tweeting "This an important win for many people in our communities, and for the first amendment.”

Several courts throughout the U.S. have made similar rulings on panhandling, under the First Amendment and local state constitutions.

WBZ NewsRadio's Carl Stevens (@carlwbz) reports.

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(Photo: Getty Images)

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