Lafayette police may target more panhandlers under new state law

Two years after Lafayette’s City Council repealed local rules against panhandling on public roads, a pending change to state law would reimpose those potentially unconstitutional restrictions — which the city’s new interim police chief says “will solve a lot of these problems here altogether.”

Lafayette’s City Council repealed two local rules against panhandling in 2022 in response to a federal lawsuit filed by a homeless man who argued the prohibitions violated his First Amendment right to free speech. Former Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s administration, which regularly targeted panhandlers for arrest, eventually settled the suit for $42,500 in December 2022. 

The federal lawsuit and subsequent change in 2022 left police confused about when they could legally arrest panhandlers, LPD’s new interim Chief Paul Trouard and the city-parish attorney told the City Council Tuesday, since local rules currently only prohibit people from impeding traffic. 

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“[If] the person steps out and restricts [drivers], then you’ve got them. Or, if the light turns green and they’re still out on the roadway trying to collect funds, that restricts movement,” Trouard said. “So there’s almost a difference between a red light and a green light, which none of the officers really understood.”

But a new law awaiting Gov. Jeff Landry’s signature would effectively revive the local prohibition by imposing a statewide ban on panhandling in any “public right of way,” a broad term that covers roads, sidewalks and potentially adjacent strips of land. That would “change everything that we do,” Trouard told the council. 

The legislation, House Bill 97, “basically takes the old city ordinance for soliciting and begging and makes it a state statute. So, we’re very interested to see what happens with that,” he said. “That will solve a lot of these problems here altogether.”

The bill has been repeatedly criticized this spring by civil rights activists since federal courts have consistently held panhandling to be protected speech under the First Amendment, but it passed by wide margins in the state House and Senate on its way to Landry’s desk. 

Weighing the effect of HB967, City Council members wondered whether the new law would apply not to just to homeless people but to anyone “soliciting, begging, panhandling, or otherwise requesting anything of value” on or near a public road (with exceptions for firefighters and police), which would impact many local fundraising efforts.

“We want our ball teams to be able to get travel money, you know, or to be able to do things,” Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said at Tuesday’s meeting. “So, if that state law goes into effect, I don’t know how Lafayette is going to receive a complete shutdown if we go into full-fledged enforcement of saying, ‘You can’t be here doing this.’”

Trouard told the council that LPD and Mayor-President Monique Blanco Boulet’s administration have been working out that aspect of the potential state law change, saying “that’s a bad look for us if we go to an intersection and start arresting a Boy Scout [or] Girl Scout troop or cheerleaders.”

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But squaring that circle could land LPD back in legal jeopardy as the exemption for panhandling by nonprofits and charities in the city’s previous rules was a central aspect of the lawsuit that ultimately led to their repeal in 2022. 

The MacArthur Justice Center, which represented the homeless man who sued LPD in 2021, issued a statement Wednesday raising the same concerns and defending panhandling as federally protected speech regardless of the potential change to state law. 

“Whether the legislature likes it or not, simply asking someone for a donation in a public space, or holding a sign making such a request, is a right that is protected by the First Amendment,” the statement reads. “If signed into law, HB 97 would potentially criminalize a broad array of speech and activities on sidewalks, streets, medians, shoulders, parks, and other public spaces.”

Boudreaux tasked Boulet’s administration with researching how other cities have tackled that issue and presenting options to the council in 45 days, during which time the fate of HB 97 would be settled. 

That timeline should also see the U.S. Supreme Court rule on a case City-Parish Attorney Pat Ottinger said may send additional “shock waves” through laws on homelessness and panhandling, further complicating a process he told the council would be “a real challenge.”

Lead Investigative Reporter Leslie Turk contributed to this report.