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Jan 13, 2016 2:51 PM

ACLU of NH suing Manchester, claims police's treatment of panhandlers violates 1st Amendment

MANCHESTER - The Queen City is facing a lawsuit after the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire decided to challenge the constitutionality of the Manchester Police Department's treatment of panhandlers.

The ACLU claims the way officers practice detaining, dispersing, and charging peaceful panhandlers for allegedly “obstructing vehicular traffic on public streets” is wrong.

Many people argue panhandlers are being deprived of their First Amendment rights.

“A panhandler holding a sign is no different than a politician holding a sign," said ACLU Attorney Gilles Bissonnette. "Or no different than a young girl holding a sign saying, ‘pull over I have a lemonade stand’ or ‘pull over I have Girl Scout cookies.’ ”

Bissonnette is representing his client and the ACLU in the suit claiming that the Manchester Police are handling panhandling wrong.

"[The police are] citing them and stopping them under Manchester’s disorderly conduct statute,” said Bissonnette.

With the lawsuit, Bissonette includes documents that say Manchester police claim panhandlers are in the middle of roadways - but in actuality, they are standing in public areas holding signs and looking for charity.

“In particular, Manchester is saying that these people are obstructing a roadway but they’re not,” said Bissonnette.

Manchester alderman - at large, Joe Levasseur, discussed the mater.

“You’re not allowed to stand in a median strip,” said Levasseur. “I think the underlying basis is to curb all these panhandlers that are bothering a lot of people walking up to cars, I think that’s the real intent.”

Because it is an active suit, Manchester police could not comment on these documents.

Due to a scheduling conflict, Mayor Ted Gatsas also could not be reached for comment.

Previously, Gatsas has spoken to NH1 News about panhandlers in the city.

“People are getting accosted in the middle of parking lots," he said. "I’m not too sure that those folks are effecting the quality of life of residents in this city.”

Officials are worried the money given to panhandlers is feeding a growing drug epidemic - but this can’t be said for all panhandlers and at this point, the ACLU said, and it is calling for a policy change.

“They’ve just made a mistake," said Bissonnette. "The policy is wrong and the policy is unconstitutional,”

Manchester has at least 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.

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