News + Notes

Aggressive policing has Lafayette panhandlers caught in a cycle of jail and homelessness

Metal sign on roadside reading Photo by Travis Gauthier
Earlier this summer, signs discouraging Lafayette from giving to panhandlers started popping up. Critics called it yet another assault on a vulnerable population.
UPDATE: Just as it did in April, the local public defender’s office challenged Anthony Willis’s incarceration Wednesday, and District Judge Michele Billeaud ordered that he be immediately released from jail. She informed the sheriff's attorney that her earlier ruling on the unconstitutionality of the criminal mischief ordinance used to arrest Willis remains pending before the Louisiana Supreme Court. “I have no ruling from a higher court saying that I’m wrong,” Billeaud said. After the hearing, the sheriff's office confirmed that LPCC's watch commander has been instructed to decline to book any arrestees on the criminal mischief charge alone. Catholic Charities has stepped in to help Willis.

Anthony Wayne Willis sat in a cell at the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center for 48 days, leaving July 12 and returning to the street. His last known address was the shuttered Salvation Army shelter. And before that, the Desiard Street Shelter in Monroe. Willis is well-known to Lafayette Police. Over a period of seven months, he was cited 34 times for crimes symptomatic of his poverty and lack of shelter: panhandling, vagrancy, standing on public property. 

He is back in jail. On Monday, Willis was arrested again, this time on a city ordinance a local district judge declared unconstitutional earlier this year. 

The 55-year-old has been caught up in a months-long dragnet operated by Lafayette Police at the behest of Mayor-President Josh Guillory and executed by a special panhandling detail. Homelessness has worsened and become more visible in Lafayette. And while the pandemic intensified what housing workers say is a crisis, so too has the Guillory administration’s crackdown. 

Attempts to contact Willis for this story were unsuccessful.

Advocates and critics argue such tactics are futile, costly and inhumane, especially in light of growing homelessness and housing insecurity connected to the pandemic. Public records and emails show that Lafayette Consolidated Government has sought to make panhandling go away while directing few resources to addressing homelessness itself.

“Effectively immediately,” Lafayette Police Chief Thomas Glover Sr. wrote in a memo on July 27, “all uniformed officers, regardless of rank, shall enforce laws that restrict panhandling within the city limits of Lafayette.” Officers who might be en route to other calls were instructed to call in the watch office to report panhandlers or face disciplinary action.

Leaving many questioning the department’s priorities and the legal jeopardy it has put itself and the city in, the chief’s memo landed at a time when Lafayette has been dealing with rising violent crime and is in the throes of a fourth coronavirus surge — the state reissued a mask mandate this week, and the moratorium on evictions was lifted Saturday (the CDC, however, stepped in Tuesday to help hard-hit areas like Louisiana).  

Mayor-President Josh Guillory, introducing Glover in December, is the driving force behind the crackdown on panhandlers. He has found a willing partner in his new chief. Photo by Stacy Conrad

“It’s unclear why the police department would want to use expensive and precious police resources to respond to begging, which is essentially a public health and poverty issue,” says Katie Schwartzmann, a Tulane professor who heads the university’s First Amendment Law Clinic. 

The case of Anthony Willis has now put LCG’s practices before the Louisiana Supreme Court. In March, Willis was booked for “criminal mischief” — holding a sign asking for money, according to an arrest affidavit. Fifteenth Judicial District Judge Michele Billeaud ruled the criminal mischief ordinance facially unconstitutional. 

Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down various laws that seek to criminalize the homeless and has consistently held that panhandling, solicitation or begging are protected speech under the First Amendment. Everyone has a right to ask their friends and community members for help when they need it, Schwartzmann says. 

That hasn’t stopped cities like Lafayette from trying. Already this year, the nation’s highest court denied Oklahoma City’s effort to revive a panhandling ordinance, leaving taxpayers to foot what civil rights attorneys say are $1.3 million in legal fees for five years of work, and in St. Louis County, Mo., a homeless man was awarded $150,000 after a federal judge ruled the county’s laws against asking drivers for money are unconstitutional

“Hopefully the Lafayette Police Department will abandon this directive to its officers and not run the risk of subjecting Lafayette to litigation for arresting people simply for asking for help,” Schwartzmann says. 

Lafayette’s coordinated effort, which included a bungled use of the PD’s mounted unit to shut down homeless camps in February and appears to have culminated in a related criminal crackdown designed to scare the public into turning its back on street beggars, has infuriated advocates for the homeless and others who seek to protect their rights. These advocates have seen a noticeable shift in how this population is treated by law enforcement since Guillory’s tenure began in early 2020. 

“The aggressive pursuit and prosecution of homeless people for their exercise of their free speech rights has significantly increased in the last 18 months,” says Dave Rubin, the 15th Judicial District’s first assistant chief public defender whose office defended Willis in absentia and is locked in a constitutional battle with the Guillory administration for penalizing people with little means and nowhere to call home. “The public defender’s office has, in numerous cases, filed motions to declare those panhandling statutes unconstitutional.”

Guillory administration spokesman Jamie Angelle referred questions for this story to LCG’s legal department. City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan did not respond to a request for an interview nor did he answer a series of specific questions about the administration’s actions. 

The police department also did not respond to the same questions forwarded to Chief Glover, who took over the department in January.

Constitutionality has vexed the panhandling detail’s efforts. With charges unable to stick, they’ve flexed among three local ordinances in the field: Lafayette’s panhandling ordinance, which forbids begging in certain circumstances; the vaguely defined “criminal mischief” statute and criminal trespassing. 

Between Dec. 1 of last year and the end of June, 105 people were cited for panhandling using the ordinance targeting begging and the criminal mischief ordinance; 53 people were cited more than once, including several who were stopped as many as five times. And while the Guillory administration has characterized many as out-of-towners looking to exploit locals’ generosity, 62% of those cited listed addresses in Lafayette Parish, 74% hailed from Acadiana and only three came from out of state. Another 23% listed local shelters or were designated “homeless” in arrest reports, making their exact place of origin unclear.

In all, Lafayette police issued more than 200 citations and arrests on those ordinances. Police also used a local criminal trespassing ordinance to nab panhandlers — for “trespassing” on posted private property or state roads and rights-of-way, according to initial arrest reports reviewed by The Current.

In the last half of March, Lafayette police wrote 57 criminal mischief citations, two for Anthony Willis. Nineteen people were cited for criminal mischief in a single day in March. The ordinance had been used a total of four times in the previous three months and 14 times in all of 2019, police records show. It’s unclear why police surged to use that particular ordinance so heavily in March.

Willis’ March 29 arrest and booking (he’d been given 15 days in jail on 10 prior occasions but was not booked due to Covid concerns) prompted a constitutional challenge from the local public defender’s office, which first learned that the LPD had been compiling a list of known panhandlers through the officer’s notes on Willis’s arrest affidavit. The officer wrote that anyone who was “holding signs asking for help; money, food or anything helpful” was added to the list. 

The criminal mischief ordinance appears to be the latest attempt by the PD to get charges to stick. The city prosecutor’s office had been dismissing many of the prior cases. 

“What is particularly frustrating is the city and state continue to use blatantly unconstitutional laws that criminalize the free exercise of speech,” says public defender Rubin, who delivered an impassioned speech to the City Council in September only to see the administration find new ways to police panhandling. 

On July 12, Anthony Willis was again released from LPCC, after having been detained for more than 1.5 months on a criminal trespassing charge and failing to appear on fugitive warrants. Failure to appear is a common predicate for jail among indigent people. 

The initial report for that arrest states that Willis “trespassed” on public property — a state owned right-of-way adjacent to the intersection of Willow Street and the Evangeline Thruway, according to an Oct. 8 “no trespass” letter authorized by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development. 

This week’s arrest report on the criminal mischief charge notes that Willis was “arrested after being warned numerous times to stop asking for money.” 

A drop in the bucket 

Lafayette has an acute lack of shelter. Last counts done in February suggested hundreds in the Acadiana area are currently homeless, many living unsheltered. And as an emergency hotel program winds down slowly without much new shelter, the homeless response system is outstripped by demand. In July, LCG appropriated $840,000 in federal coronavirus funds for homelessness outreach, including funds for rapid rehousing and case work, but the funds will last six months. 

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” ARCH Executive Director Leigh Rachal says. 

LCG does a much better job of caring for animals in need, having poured millions of dollars into a world-class animal shelter. Animal control is also serviced by a dedicated property tax, this year allocated $2 million in LCG’s proposed budget.

Just this week, a group of eight housing advocates joined forces to ask LCG for help, requesting $6.5 million to provide emergency shelter for the homeless and for abused women, citing the toll of the pandemic and multiple hurricanes. 

Meanwhile, LCG’s deterrence campaign continues unabated. By June, signs dissuading panhandling appeared along Lafayette’s major thoroughfares, directing drivers not to give to panhandlers and instead call 211. But there remains little for the operators at 211 to do. LCG defended the signs, saying they were not intended to be punitive. But critics saw their appearance as another assault on vulnerable people.

Guillory’s plan for an accelerated crackdown, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story, came within weeks of the Lafayette City and Parish councils deferring a controversial ordinance pushed as a safety measure during the pandemic but viewed by many as an attempt to criminalize the homeless.

The ARCH network of hotels housed people as a safer alternative to conventional shelters during the pandemic. Photo by Travis Gauthier

Some studies suggest that providing housing can be a cheaper solution than rounding homeless people up. A program in Denver that offers stable housing with wraparound support by case workers and other services nearly paid for itself by offsetting the social cost of cycling indigent people from the street, to jail, to emergency rooms and back to the street, according to the Urban Institute. 

For many observers, the administration and police department’s efforts to criminalize panhandling came into focus on June 15, when Chief Glover claimed in a press conference that more than two dozen drug dealers had been posing as panhandlers to take advantage of Lafayette’s charitable giving. Glover was quick to point out that only a handful of people had been made aware of the three-month investigation. During this press event, unlike others involving major drug operations, the police department presented no evidence of drugs that had been seized.

Four of the 26 alleged drug dealers were already sitting in a jail cell at the time of the press conference. Arrests of the others have proceeded at a snail’s pace.  

“My first thought was was it related to the signs and all the bad press they got,” Rubin says. “But what was particularly offensive to me was them trying to guilt people from giving to the poor because they would somehow be giving to the cartel. The chief even used the word ‘cartel.’”

Meetings between Guillory and homelessness response providers have not been fruitful, with the mayor-president unwilling to deploy public resources to address the lack of shelter, while continuing to ramp up enforcement action. 

Several people who were party to a meeting concerning panhandling convened last fall by City Councilwoman Liz Hebert recall Guillory saying explicitly he would no longer tolerate the presence of panhandlers on Lafayette’s streets and would pursue new legal channels to get what he wanted. 

“At some point the question was, ‘Then what?’” says ARCH’s Rachal. “You have this ordinance, it passes all the First Amendment issues and you arrest people. So now you just have a jail full of folks. We just depopulated jails. We don’t want to have folks cluttering up the jail. The answer was that it will disrupt their normal pattern. It’ll mean their stuff’s gone by the time they get back, maybe it’ll cause them to move on.”

Guillory has found some common cause with Councilwoman Hebert, who continues to work on ordinances that would deter panhandling. Hebert had a hand pushing forward the anti-panhandling signs but said in an interview she was unhappy with the rollout. Until two weeks ago, she says, she was unaware that panhandlers were being arrested. “That’s not right,” she says. “That has never been part of my plan,” adds Hebert, who maintains her objective is to divert panhandlers to other resources for help. 

The councilwoman, who told The Current she was meeting with Guillory this week to address her concerns about the arrests, says the mayor told her panhandlers would only be arrested if they were violent. That assertion is not supported by arrest reports, which rarely record violence or resistance among cited panhandlers.

Cycle back to the courts

The sustained pandemic has layered on even more pressure as homelessness continues unabated. 

“The fact that they kept doing this is evidence of what they were trying to do, put them in jail … when Covid could and did run rampant,” Rubin says. “It just shows how little the city thinks of the poorest among us.”

Rubin’s office has been fighting the administration’s efforts on several fronts. But the disposition of their clients and their offenses makes it difficult to press the issue through the court system. 

“It can be very challenging to get a constitutional finding [about an ordinance], especially one that involves this kind of thing because of how quickly people can move in and out of jail,” Rubin says, noting that City Court judges have yet to rule on the constitutionality of the ordinances in any cases. Willis’s criminal mischief charge, however, provided a rare opportunity to run a case to the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

“To say that it is illegal to ask for help is a dangerous, slippery slope,” District Judge Billeaud said in court April 8, calling the statute overly broad and setting the stage for a constitutional challenge. “I do not believe that this is what our constitution stands for. I find the ordinance is unconstitutional on its face.”

The state filed a supervisory writ application before the Louisiana Supreme Court. It remains pending.

After Billeaud’s April ruling, with the constitutionality of panhandling arrests by Lafayette Police hanging in the balance, Anthony Willis was arrested again and again. Police cited him for criminal trespassing at 100 W. Willow St., the same state-owned median where he was asking for help in March. He was released last month only to be arrested again Monday on criminal mischief, the ordinance before the state Supreme Court. 

As of publication, Willis is still in jail and still homeless.

This story has been updated to reflect that the CDC issued a new order Tuesday temporarily halting evictions in states like Louisiana that are experiencing another coronavirus surge.