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Next move is Portland's after court strikes down loitering ban

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Next move is Portland's after court strikes down loitering ban

PORTLAND — Ronnie Jones, a panhandler who goes by the name Jonesey, said he's less of a danger to traffic than traffic is to itself.

"I've seen everything, man. People turn here illegally, run red lights, they're texting," Jonesey said from a median at the intersection of Forest Avenue and Marginal Way. "If I was a cop, I'd sit right here and fill up a ticket book in a single day."

While the busy intersection might be rife with civil offenses, loitering is no longer one of them.

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine ruled that the city's ordinance prohibiting loitering on median strips was unconstitutional – a decision that the city's lawyer is still weighing.

"While we respect the Court's decision we are of course very disappointed," attorney Danielle West-Chuhta said in a written statement. "We have not had an opportunity to fully review the Judge's ruling and are still in the process of determining next steps including whether or not to appeal the decision."

Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said on Monday that the City Council will might decide the course of action during a workshop on Feb. 24.

The ordinance was challenged on behalf of three people: two activists who frequently used the city's median strips as a platform for spreading their messages, and a woman who panhandles from medians, according to a news release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

“Today’s decision is an important victory for freedom of speech, and for all people who use public spaces to communicate with their fellow citizens,” Zachary Heiden, legal director for the ACLU of Maine, said in a press release. “The First Amendment protects all of us, no matter what views we hold or how much money we make.”

Jonesey, 49, lives in an apartment in Munjoy Hill, but has been unemployed for more than a decade. He panhandles on Portland's median strips for money or supplies.

"Anything. Food. Clothes," he said. "Someone gave me an orange earlier."

After 30 minutes of standing in icy winds on a snow-crusted median strip Monday morning, Jonesey had collected two dollars in bills and a fistful of change in 30 minutes. He said he averages about $15 a day.

"People are so nice up here it's unbelievable," the Washington native said. "But then you get the creeps who drive by (shouting), 'Get a job!'"

On the other side of a travel lane, Bob Macie was having a better morning. He'd collected about $40 and a pair of new wool socks.

During the summer months, Macie works as a sternman on lobster boats. In the winter, he panhandles. He has been homeless for more than five years – a result of physical and mental disabilities, he said. He spends his nights at the Oxford Street Shelter.

Macie said he stands on corners throughout the city and sometimes makes as much as $100 a day. He holds a straightforward placard: homeless, no drugs, no drinking, "God-bless."

Macie said he was relieved that the court ruled against the city. The medians, he believes, provide a balance in the city.

"If they make this illegal, what do you think is going to happen to the junkies? They'll be out robbing people," he said. "Right now everybody is happy and content. They're not arresting anybody for robbery."

Last July, the City Council voted 6-0 to ban loitering in street medians – a measure critics called a thinly disguised attempt to stamp out panhandling.

According to the council, the ordinance was intended to improve safety for drivers and pedestrians alike. It was supported by several neighborhood leaders, business people, and police, who said the ban wasn't focused on panhandlers, but rather the safety of anyone who perches in the median strips, surrounded by traffic.

The court case was successfully argued by five attorneys from Goodwin Procter, the legal firm that brought the case in cooperation with the ACLU of Maine.

“Ordinances like this have been appearing all over the country, but most courts have agreed that they are far too burdensome on the fundamental right to free expression,” one of the attorneys, Kevin Martin, said.

Portland police did not enforce the ordinance while the case was pending.

"Safety has always been our primary concern," Police Chief Michael Sauschuk said in a news release. "Although we were hoping for a different outcome we will certainly abide by the Judge's decision."

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.