In City of Lakewood v. Willis, the WA Supreme Court held that a Lakewood Municipal Ordinance that prohibited begging near highways and intersections of major highways violated the First Amendment.
Mr. Willis was standing near an exit ramp from I-5 in Lakewood and holding a sign saying he was disabled and needed help. An officer cited Mr. Willis for “Aggressive Begging,” a crime under Lakewood Municipal Code (LMC) 9A.04.020A.
At trial, the jury found Mr. Willis guilty. The municipal court sentenced him to 90 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, with 90 days and $750 suspended. The court also assessed $125 in costs. Mr. Willis appealed, raising several constitutional challenges to the statute.
On appeal, the WA Supreme Court reasoned that although the government can impose certain restrictions on speech in a public forum, such as reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions; it cannot impose restrictions based on content. Consequently, Willis may challenge the ordinance as facially overbroad regardless of his conduct. “Because both provisions impose a content-based speech restriction in a substantial number of traditional public forums, Willis’ facial challenge succeeds. Thus, his conviction must be reversed.”
My opinion? This is a great decision, and should be helpful to defense attorneys in other municipalities with ordinances that limit and outlaw panhandling. Sure, aggressive panhandling from the homeless is annoying. However, it should not be criminalized. It wastes taxpayer money to incarcerate the homeless on these charges. Next thing you know, the Girl Scouts of America will be jailed for selling cookies at your grocery store.
Big congratulations to attorney David Ionnotti, who represented Mr. Willis. The ACLU and Washington Defender Association filed one amicus brief in the case, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness filed another.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.