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Anti-Panhandling Ordinance Deemed Unconstitutional on Appeal

A Man Asks For Donations on the Street
Hanlly Sam
A Man Asks For Donations on the Street

A Fort Myers ordinance criminalizing people who ask for charity on streets and sidewalks was determined to be unconstitutional by Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal.

Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal ruled this week that a Fort Myers ordinance criminalizing requests for charity is unconstitutional.

In 2019, a man named David Watrous was arrested for violating a Fort Myers municipal ordinance that prohibits people from asking for charity on a public street.

The appeal court ruling overturns the trial court’s decision in the case. The ACLU of Florida, Southern Legal Counsel, and Florida Rural Legal Services filed an amicus brief supporting his appeal. Monica McNulty Kovecses is one of the attorneys who worked on the brief. She said while the state did make a 180 degree turn on this ruling, it is in step with similar cases across the country.

"In every single case like this that is considered, these types of ordinances, the court has found that they do not meet strict scrutiny and they are unconstitutional, McNulty Kovecses said. "So, really it’s been essentially universal, nationally - both across Florida and nationwide. They do not survive. They do not pass muster constitutionally and they’re being stricken down left and right.”

The legal argument against the Fort Myers ordinance, which restricts solicitation of charitable assistance, is that it's a content-based restriction on speech and a violation of the First Amendment.