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Manchester panhandler gets $89k to settle lawsuit

By MARK HAYWARD
New Hampshire Union Leader

December 02. 2017 10:02PM
A panhandler accepts cash from a passing motorist near the Interstate 93 on ramp on Candia Road in Manchester on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER FILE PHOTO)

MANCHESTER - Manchester city officials have agreed to pay $89,000 to settle claims brought by lawyers on behalf of a panhandler ticketed two years ago during a crackdown on panhandling in Manchester.

The settlement represents the end to a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and New Hampshire Legal Assistance over tickets that police started issuing in 2015.

The crackdown started in early 2015, and later that year aldermen passed an anti-panhandling ordinance that was championed by Joyce Craig, who was then an alderman and is now mayor-elect.

The settlement is the second to be reached in the last two months between the ACLU-New Hampshire and Manchester police over civil rights violations. In October, the city agreed to pay $275,000 to a man who was arrested for filming police as they conducted a raid on his home.

On Sept. 7, the judge in the panhandling case ordered Manchester police to stop using the state's disorderly conduct law to ticket panhandlers who don't step in the road or otherwise physically obstruct traffic. U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty also declared the Craig ordinance, which prohibited passing any item from a vehicle to someone standing on a curb, unconstitutional.

Theresa Petrello was a veteran of both the Army and Navy when ticketed at the corner of Maple and Bridge streets, the ACLU said.

"I feel that I was treated very unfairly by the Manchester police and its officials," she said in a statement. "I was treated like a criminal, but I am not. I feel like this targeting was done simply because my peaceful speech annoyed, angered, and made others feel uncomfortable."

The ACLU said Petrello plans to split her undisclosed share of the settlement between savings and living expenses.

City Solicitor Emily Rice confirmed the settlement amount. And she said the city opted to not appeal McCafferty's restrictions on enforcement actions against panhandlers.

Rice would not detail under what circumstances police will ticket panhandlers in the future, saying she did not want to discuss hypothetical situations.

"You can be assured the Manchester Police Department understands very well the terms of the injunction and is abiding by those terms," she said.

ACLU legal director Gilles Bissonnette said Manchester panhandlers were being ticketed in 2015 for soliciting motorists peacefully, even when they avoided stepping into the roadway.

"This settlement is a victory for free speech, as well as recognition that cities and towns need to stop criminalizing poverty in violation of the First Amendment," Bissonnette said in a statement. He said officials in Concord, Somersworth and Rochester have agreed to stop enforcing their version of the Manchester ordinance.

"These individuals were seeking charity. Instead of charity, Manchester charged them and sent them to court," said Elliott Berry of Legal Assistance. He noted Manchester stopped the practices earlier this year.

In a statement issued Friday, Mayor-elect Craig said her administration would look to existing resources and community partners to curb panhandling in Manchester.

"We need to discourage patrons from giving to panhandlers and educate residents and visitors to make donations directly to agencies dealing with homelessness, addiction and mental illness," Craig wrote.

A police department spokesman said Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard and Assistant Chief Carlo Capano were not available Friday afternoon.

In June of this year, Willard relaxed the department's get-tough policy on panhandling. He said drivers who give to panhandlers would be ticketed, and he refused city officials' pleas to ticket people standing in medians.

A month later, he had signs installed to discourage drivers from donating to panhandlers and instead give money to charities.

The alderman who chairs the committee that approved the settlement said the city faced a higher payout if the case went to trial.

"It felt like a lot of money for someone who felt violated," said Keith Hirschmann, chairman of the Human Resources and Insurance Committee.

According to McCafferty's order, Manchester started a get-tough policy against panhandling in 2015, with police brass researching laws and determining they could use the disorderly conduct statute if panhandlers were impeding traffic, for example taking money from a car stopped at a green light.

That same year, aldermen passed the Craig ordinance, which was based on a Concord city ordinance developed with the help of the ACLU.

The ACLU believes 25 people have been ticketed under one ordinance or the other.

Bissonnette said the settlement goes to Petrello because she had the courage to bring the lawsuit. He would not specify how much goes to her, but said the attorney fees are different from the traditional one-third contingency because the case involved a civil rights complaint.

He suggested that the city vacate any convictions against panhandlers in light of McCafferty's order, but he said the settlement does not address that.

Rice would not address questions about whether the city would vacate convictions and refund fines, saying they all depend on the facts of the case.

The ACLU filed a settlement notice with the court on Oct. 11, and the case was officially dismissed last week.

mhayward@unionleader.com


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