Man sues over RI panhandling citation, says it violates rights

Cops said he violated a city ordinance that prohibits people from asking for donations on roadways

By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A man who was cited by police for soliciting donations at an intersection filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing city officials of violating his constitutional right to free speech.

Michael Monteiro is being represented by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the federal lawsuit against the city of Cranston is the first of several the group is planning over laws it says criminalize the poor.

"Asking for help is a form of free speech," said Marc Gursky, the attorney who filed the lawsuit.

He said there have been a number of cases in federal courts where such bans have been struck down on free speech grounds, including one last month in Worcester, Massachusetts. The bans are also selectively enforced, he said, because cheerleaders and firefighters asking for donations on roadways have not been cited.

Cranston's director of administration Robert Coupe says the city will continue to protect motorists from unnecessary distractions that threaten safety.

"Once again the ACLU is misrepresenting a common-sense public safety issue," he said, declining to respond to any specific claims in the lawsuit.

Monteiro, 57, of Providence, spent 32 years moving furniture but can no longer work because he needs two hips replaced, he said. Instead, he lives off disability checks that often run out before the end of the month.

When that happens, he said he often takes a bus to neighboring Cranston to ask for donations at a traffic light near a shopping center, something he has been doing for 10 years. He holds up a cardboard sign saying he is disabled and asking for help.

He said he can only stay for about an hour because he can't stand any longer than that, and collects a total of $20 to $30 each time. He sometimes would see cheerleaders raising money in the same spot, and he'd head back home, he said.

In June, an officer issued a citation to him, saying he violated a city ordinance that prohibits people from asking for donations on roadways. A judge dismissed the charges after hearing he had no money and was disabled, but told him not to return.

Monteiro hasn't been back since, and is having trouble making ends meet.

"I think I have $11 left right now for the rest of the month," he said. "I just have to make it work."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press

Associated Press
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