SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge has struck down Utah's anti-panhandling law, contending it is so overbroad it could prohibit a child from selling lemonade in local neighborhoods.
In the Thursday ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart, the actions of four panhandlers cited by Salt Lake police or the Utah Highway Patrol were deemed protected under the First Amendment.
The Utah Attorney General's Office, in defending the constitutionality of the law, argued that there was legitimate government interest at stake because of traffic safety. It said there were clearly "evident dangers of physical injury and traffic disruption that are present when individuals stand in the center of busy streets trying to engage drivers and solicit contributions from them."
While Stewart acknowledged that the state has a legitimate government interest in regulating conduct on busy roadways, such regulations may not come through "sweeping statutes that regulate conduct unrelated to the government interest."
He pointed out in his ruling that the language of the statute applied to all roads and in doing so extended prohibitions on a wide range of situations he said likely have no impact on safety.
"For example, the statute would prohibit children from selling lemonade in front of their house on a quiet street in Parowan, Utah, or a panhandler from requesting donations alongside a gravel road," his ruling said.
Attorney Brian Barnard, who brought the suit in 2010 on behalf of Terry Lee Wilkinson, Patty Eagle, Steve Ray Evans and Jackie Sanchez, said the statute was so over-reaching it criminalized valet parking services in front of restaurants and Girl Scouts selling cookies in view of passing motorists.
Salt Lake City, in its settlement of the suit in early 2011, agreed to no longer enforce the statute. Utah sought a ruling on the constitutionality of the law.
Barnard said the ruling is an important victory for fundamental constitutional rights.
"The First Amendment protects the right for people to ask for help and to seek employment," he said. "Laws already make aggressive panhandling a crime; those should be enforced. This statute, now declared unconstitutional, made innocuous innocent conduct a crime."