Mayor reacts to Kentucky Supreme Court overturning panhandling ordinance

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (WKYT) - The Kentucky Supreme Court issued a ruling on Thursday overturning Lexington's panhandling ordinance.

The ruling involved a case against Dennis Champion. On December 8, 2014, Lexington Police cited Champion for violating the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government's Ordinance 14-5, which prohibits begging and soliciting on public streets. His arrest citation said that Champion had a sign requesting financial assistance as he stood at the intersection of new Circle Road and Georgetown Street.

Champion's attorney asked the high court to determine if an ordinance against panhandling in Lexington is a violation of free speech. The Supreme Court agreed. In the ruling, the justices said that the ordinance "unconstitutionally abridges freedom of speech under the First Amendment."

The justices are sending Champion's case back to Fayette District Court with a recommendation to dismiss the charges against him.

The ordinance which passed back in 2007, says "No person shall beg or solicit upon the public streets or at the intersection of said public streets within the urban county area." It goes on to say, "Any person who violates any provision of this section shall be fined not less than one hundred dollars or be imprisoned not less than ten days nor more than thirty days or both for each offense."

In the ruling, it states that Lexington's primary justification for Ordinance 14-5 is the city's desire to ensure public safety and to ensure free flow of traffic. However, the court ruling said that the city offered no evidence of traffic delays or accidents caused by panhandlers approaching stopped motorists.

"Just because public safety is recognized as a compelling government interest does not empower the government to enact any measure or target particularized behavior in its name without justification. And invocation of that interest in this instance is disingenuous at best," the ruling read. "Adding insult to injury, this was not the particular behavior for which Champion was cited; law enforcement cited Champion for holding a sign at an intersection, not approaching stopped vehicles."

The ruling also said the ordinance is underinclusive, "because Lexington has not bothered to explain why panhandling poses a greater risk to public safety than other forms of speech. We have been given no reason to believe that begging presents substantially greater risks than similar conduct, such as street performances or simply asking for directions."

Susan Straub, communications director for the mayor's office, said “This ruling takes our current law off the books. We cannot enforce it. With people asking for help at our intersections, safety has always been our primary concern. We will carefully examine options and work on a strategy that puts safety first for everyone involved.”

Mayor Jim Gray talked with WKYT crews Friday. He says he is working on a new ordinance that will address safety and accept the ruling of the court.

"Someone that's in a median can get hit by a car. There are safety issues here that are in my view, when I've encountered those who are asking for help, I'm thinking they could be in real danger here," noted Mayor Gray. "I didn't like the ruling of course, but now what that means is that the city cannot enforce the panhandling ordinance that we had on the books. What we must do now is examine what we can do and what we want to do is put safety first."

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