Eric Hoffstead, a homeless panhandler arrested in New Rochelle, N.Y., six months ago on loitering charges, charges that a New York law banning begging violates his right to free speech, the New York Times reports. Hoffstead, 36, said, “I'm a fighter, and I'm going to fight this loitering charge until the end.” The state penal code says a person is loitering if he “remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging,” but the provision was ruled unconstitutional in 1992 by a federal court. Despite that ruling, more than 2,300 people have been arrested statewide for violating it over the last decade, including 442 in 2006.
Constitutional law experts say the 1992 decision, in a lawsuit filed on behalf of panhandlers arrested for loitering by the New York Police Department, is not binding on state courts but should serve as a persuasive precedent to state judges considering similar challenges. A lawyer is pursuing a contempt of court motion on behalf of New York City panhandlers, citing 791 summonses issued by police between June 23, 2005, when a federal judge in Manhattan ordered city authorities to cease enforcement of the provision, and Feb. 21, 2007. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down several loitering statutes, but it has never considered the issue of loitering for the purpose of begging, and whether prohibiting it violates the First Amendment, said Michael Dorf, professor of constitutional law at Columbia University.