Lafayette Consolidated Government administration paid a $42,000 settlement in December to a man targeted by the Lafayette Police Department’s campaign to arrest panhandlers.
Three months after The Current’s August 2021 report on an aggressive policing strategy toward panhandlers, George Henagan took LCG to federal court, claiming his constitutional rights were violated by the Guillory administration’s overt campaign to criminalize begging.
Henagan, a homeless and unemployed man twice arrested by Lafayette police in November 2020, said his suit aimed to stop LCG’s clampdown on panhandling — which district and appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court have repeatedly found to be protected speech under the First Amendment.
Records from federal court show that LCG settled Henagan’s suit ahead of discovery that may have put Mayor-President Josh Guillory in the hot seat. Guillory was named personally in the suit and sought immunity for acting in his official capacity.
After failing in August 2020 to pass an anti-panhandling ordinance (sitting or standing within 36 inches of a roadway or in a median), Guillory instructed LPD to find a way to use existing ordinances and state laws to clear Lafayette’s streets of panhandlers, according to multiple sources who attended meetings with Guillory and public records from LPD. In his suit, Henagan pointed to dialogue between council members, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan and Guillory during a council meeting affirming the goal of the proposed ordinance was to target panhandlers indirectly by avoiding use of the word “panhandling,” since, according to Logan, “… [I]f you say ‘panhandlers,’ it will be declared unconstitutional.”
Guillory has made eliminating panhandling one of the “main objectives” of his administration, according to an internal LPD memo sent to officers a little more than a month after Henagan filed his suit. He found willing partners in the Lafayette Police Department leadership.
LPD kept a list of known panhandlers and dispatched a special detail to hammer corners they frequented. More than 100 people had been cited for panhandling over a six-month period, some as many as five times, The Current’s 2021 investigation found. Over that summer, signs discouraging Lafayette from giving to panhandlers started popping up, which critics saw as 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 housing insecurity/homelessness itself, even as coronavirus spread throughout the city. Those who advocate for people experiencing homelessness and critics of such policies argue that criminalization tactics are futile, costly and inhumane.
Facing a federal lawsuit claiming its panhandling crackdown was unconstitutional, Lafayette is seeking to repeal portions of its panhandling ordinances.
As homelessness rises, panhandlers have been caught up in a months-long police dragnet that critics say is ineffective and inhumane. Soon, the Louisiana Supreme Court will weigh whether it’s constitutional.
At times, panhandlers were incarcerated in the parish jail despite orders to shut down bookings of non-violent offenders to keep the virus at bay. Henagan got 30 days in jail for his second arrest; another homeless man, Anthony Willis, served 48 days straight on panhandling charges. When he was arrested in early 2021 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.
“[A] reasonable official would have and should have known that pretextual arrests of citizens engaged in this protected speech is violative of the First Amendment,” federal magistrate Patrick Hanna wrote of Guillory in his recommendations to the judge.
The PD’s tactics left many officers questioning the department’s priorities and the legal jeopardy it was putting itself and the city in. In the midst of Henagan’s suit, LCG rushed to repeal its two panhandling ordinances, but the court found that this “voluntary cessation” did not moot Henagan’s constitutionality challenges. “‘[V]oluntary compliance’ moots a case only when ‘it is absolutely clear the alleged wrongful behavior could not reasonably be expected to recur,’” Hanna wrote.
“This is my first time hearing about it today,” City Council Chairman Glenn Lazard said Tuesday when contacted about the December settlement. “It would be nice to have known, of course.” Lazard says council approval is required for settlements of $100,000 or more.
Along with LCG, Henagan sued — in their official and individual capacities — Guillory, City-Parish Attorney Greg Logan (Logan was dismissed on legislative and prosecutorial immunity grounds), former interim chief Scott Morgan and Officer Joshua Myers, who has since left the department. The court denied the qualified immunity claims of Guillory, Morgan and Myers, and the next step would have been discovery on their claims that they could not be held individually liable for damages.
Along with legal costs, avoiding discovery/depositions is an incentive to settle, says one of Henagan’s attorneys, Eric Foley of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. Foley says those questions would have included: “Should they have known what they were doing was unconstitutional? How directly involved were they?”
“But regardless of how the qualified immunity question turns out, the city would still be on the hook,” Foley says, “since only individuals, not cities, can take advantage of qualified immunity.”
My understanding is the new chief is not interested in pursuing that former policy, which I hope to be the case.Attorney Eric Foley of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center
Logan did not respond to questions about the settlement, including how much it has cost LCG in legal fees and whether arresting panhandlers remains one of the Guillory administration’s “main objectives.” (Foley says LCG attempted to make the settlement confidential; while it is still marked “confidential,” it is not.)
“They didn’t agree to any kind of injunctive relief. There’s no policy change required by the settlement,” says attorney Kristen Amond of New Orleans-based Mills & Amond, which also represented Henagan in the case. However, Amond noted the importance of the city repealing the panhandling ordinances and the court rejecting LCG’s arguments that the use of the obstructing-a-highway statute and mirroring local ordinance was lawful. “They’re on notice that this conduct would violate the First Amendment,” she says. “The court made clear that the right of citizens to engage in panhandling as protected speech is clearly established.”
The attorneys say the settlement doesn’t prevent them from bringing a similar claim on behalf of anyone else if LCG continues to arrest panhandlers. “My understanding is the new chief is not interested in pursuing that former policy, which I hope to be the case,” Foley says.
The Current has public records requests pending with LCG and the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center to determine whether the crackdown has continued. Last month a memo seeking volunteers for what’s now being called “roadway obstruction detail” went out to Lafayette police officers.