Charlotte District Attorney Says He Won’t Stop Prosecuting Panhandlers
A judge’s decision could end the practice of jailing people for soliciting money along streets and highways, but DA Spencer Merriweather has been slow to embrace the change.
For those in the path of Hurricane Florence, the end of the storm meant going home if they and their houses survived. Not so for many in emergency storm shelters in Charlotte, North Carolina. Eighty percent of those who showed up there were homeless, estimates Deronda Metz, social services director for the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope homeless shelter.
Metz, who has worked with homeless people for 30 years, said she asked one visitor, who was staying at the shelter with three children and her mother, where she and her family would go when the shelter closed. “I guess I’ll just sit here until the sun goes down and the sun comes up in the morning,” she told Metz.
As local news stories document, many homeless people in Charlotte rely on panhandling to get by. A report by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute found that for 13 percent of people interviewed who were homeless on a given night in January 2017, panhandling was their main source of income.
Historically, city dwellers have been forbidden by local law from panhandling on the shoulders or sides of roads and highways. Violators can be charged with misdemeanors and are regularly arrested and prosecuted. But that law is now in question.
On Aug. 29, District Court Judge Kim Best ruled that it violates First Amendment protection by “specifically targeting a message conveyed ‘for the purposes of soliciting contributions.’” Elizabeth Frawley, an assistant public defender who brought the case, says the rule is applied only to poor people asking for money and not to, say, volunteers waving signs for political campaigns or kids advertising car washes or selling Girl Scout cookies.
“What we’re saying is there’s a certain type of speech we just don’t want to hear because we don’t like it or it makes us feel uncomfortable,” Frawley told The Appeal.
Yet despite the ruling, it’s unclear whether enforcement of the law will change. That’s because the local district attorney, Spencer Merriweather, a Democrat, hasn’t committed to ending the prosecutions.
If the act of being there is what’s unsafe, then why does [the ordinance] care if I'm asking for contributions versus holding a sign?Elizabeth Frawley, assistant public defender
Merriweather says his office won’t appeal the ruling but will continue to prosecute violations on a case-by-case basis. He told The Appeal that the rule is a public safety provision and cited two cases last year in which people panhandling in or near roads were killed by cars. “Arresting people simply for asking people for money isn’t what anyone wants to do and certainly isn’t what I want the district attorney’s office to do,” he said. But making sure that people in need don’t get hit by cars, he added, “is something worth enforcing the law on.”
He doesn’t read the judge’s order as a blanket prohibition but as a challenge to his office to present better evidence the next time the case comes to court.
Frawley rejects that reading, calling the case a facial challenge. “The text as it is written, regardless of the facts, was found to be unconstitutional,” she told The Appeal. She also finds the safety argument specious. “If the act of being there is what’s unsafe, then why does [the ordinance] care if I’m asking for contributions versus holding a sign?” She’s assessing whether to try to stop further arrests through collateral estoppel, a common-law doctrine that protects criminal defendants from being tried for the same issue in more than one criminal trial.
The first African American to hold the job, Merriweather was appointed in November after departing Republican DA Andrew Murray recommended him as interim replacement. (Murray was appointed a U.S. attorney by Donald Trump, and Merriweather had been a homicide prosecutor in the DA’s office.)
Three months into the new role, Merriweather made a move that cheered advocates for the poor: He eliminated a down payment requirement to participate in a program offering deferred prosecution to first-time, nonviolent offenders in exchange for restitution, opening it up to those who couldn’t afford the initial payment.
In May, Merriweather faced a challenger in the special election to choose a permanent DA: Toussaint Romain, an assistant public defender who was a leader and peacekeeper during the protests over the 2016 police shooting of Keith Scott. In that race, which the Charlotte Observer called perhaps the county’s “most competitive race ever for district attorney,” Merriweather was criticized for being part of the office that declined to prosecute the officer who killed Scott. Both candidates ran on promises to reform the DA’s office.
Merriweather won in a landslide, pulling almost 80 percent of the vote.
I think it’s punishing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters because they’re publicly seeking help.Rabbi Judith Schindler, Queens University
Rabbi Judith Schindler, a prominent local advocate who met with the DA about revising the deferred prosecution program, is concerned that Merriweather is dragging his feet on the change. “It’s surprising to me that the DA would continue on this path,” said Schindler, who also directs a center for peace and justice studies at Charlotte’s Queens University. “I think it’s punishing our most vulnerable brothers and sisters because they’re publicly seeking help, and if we don’t approve of how they’re seeking help … that says more about us than about them.”
A second Charlotte ordinance, not covered by Best’s ruling, forbids panhandling under other circumstances—for example, “by accosting another” or begging near banks and restaurants or after dark. Since Merriweather took office on November 27, Charlotte police have made 86 arrests and issued 192 citations for panhandling under the two ordinances, according to data from the police department.
But Merriweather defends his use of the second ordinance as well. “In each and every case, I’ve got to make—and I would ask my prosecutors to make—the most just call they can,” he told The Appeal. “I can tell you that there have been a number of times where in fact we decided we’re not going to proceed on those cases.”
Metz says in any instance, the arrests are unfair. “We’ve got to come up with something else,” she said. “Arresting people that are already overwhelmed, at the bottom of the society, I think that is criminal.”