Amid federal lawsuit, Lafayette seeks to repeal panhandling ordinances

Photo of panhandling sign
At the same time Lafayette police were arresting scores of people asking for help last year, signs discouraging local residents from giving to panhandlers started popping up. The Guillory administration is now asking the City Council to repeal portions of the ordinances police used to arrest those panhandlers. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: Facing a federal lawsuit claiming its panhandling crackdown is unconstitutional, Lafayette is seeking to repeal portions of its panhandling ordinances.

Get caught up, quickly. An investigation by Straight News Online last year revealed how homeless people had been caught up in a months-long dragnet operated by Lafayette Police at the behest of Mayor-President Josh Guillory.

More than 100 people had been cited for panhandling over a six-month period, some as many as five times, Straight News Online’s investigation found. As part of its attempt to criminalize begging, LPD had been keeping a list of known panhandlers and dispatched a special detail to hammer corners they frequented. Over the summer, signs discouraging Lafayette from giving to panhandlers started popping up, which critics called yet another assault on a vulnerable population. Public records and emails showed that LCG sought to push panhandlers from curbs while directing few resources to addressing the growing problem of homelessness itself.

One man was jailed for 48 days on a panhandling charge. Anthony Willis’s case stood out at the time because it had put LCG’s practices before the Louisiana Supreme Court. In March 2021, Willis was booked for “criminal mischief” — holding a sign asking for money, according to an arrest affidavit. The local public defender’s office challenged his arrest, and Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Michele Billeaud ruled the criminal mischief ordinance facially unconstitutional.

LPD reassured officers the SC had upheld the charge against Willis (see footnote in email) — calling the special panhandling detail “one of [Guillory’s] main objectives” in a Dec. 14 email. Now, however, LCG is asking the City Council to repeal the portion of the criminal mischief ordinance used to arrest Willis — “acting in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others.” The council is also being asked to repeal an entire section related to “begging and soliciting money.” (Read the repeal ordinance here.) Contradicting LPD brass’ interpretation, the SC did not rule on the constitutionality of the ordinance; the court instead said the issue at hand was moot because Willis had already been released from jail for the March arrest.

City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan did not respond to an email seeking comment on the administration’s request to amend the city’s panhandling ordinances. The repeal ordinance is being introduced Tuesday, April 19, and would be up for final adoption on May 3.

The potential repeal is welcome news to social service agencies. “We look to the laws of our community to recognize the inherent dignity of every human life, with a special concern for the most vulnerable,” says Kim Boudreaux of Catholic Charities, which stepped in last year to help Willis, who was back in jail on a criminal mischief charge when Straight News Online published its story. People who suffer for lack of food or shelter should seek “protection under the law, not be further marginalized,” she adds.

Several federal courts have ruled panhandling constitutionally protected speech. Lawsuits challenging panhandling laws have brought heavy penalties on the communities that enforce them. A federal court ordered Oklahoma City to pay $1 million to attorneys who successfully challenged the city’s ban on panhandling in street medians.

What’s next? The New Orleans-based lawyers who filed suit in November on behalf of George Henagan, who is homeless and unemployed, appear to have LCG’s attention. They are also seeking damages and attorneys’ fees and have asked the court for a preliminary injunction to prevent Lafayette PD from arresting Henagan again for panhandling.

“Repeal of the clearly unconstitutional provisions of these ordinances is long overdue,” attorney Eric Foley of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center wrote in an emailed response. Such a repeal, Henagan’s legal team noted, would come too late for their client and “the scores of people that LCG has unlawfully cited, summoned, and arrested under the ordinances simply because they asked their fellow citizens for help.”

“We hope that LCG will not only repeal these ordinances, but also cease its campaign to target the homeless under these and other unconstitutional laws,” the lawyers said.