U.S. District Court sides with St. Augustine panhandler

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In what some said was a First Amendment victory, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida has declared Florida Statutes 316.2045 and 337.406 — which prohibit the solicitation of charitable contributions on Florida roadways except by charitable organizations or when a local government permit has been issued — unconstitutional.

The case was brought on behalf of Peter Vigue, who regularly stands at the Palencia entrance and in front of the Market at Cobblestone Village in St. Augustine to collect donations from motorists.

Vigue was repeatedly arrested by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Department and the Florida Highway Patrol — and spent time in jail for violating these statutes — for holding up signs with “God bless. Be safe.” and asking for help along the roadside, according to the nonprofit group Southern Legal Counsel.

Vigue waved at cars and gave a thumbs up as they passed.

"The court's ruling recognized that the challenged statutes unlawfully prohibited Mr. Vigue from asking for help on roadways, which is protected First Amendment expression,” said Kirsten Anderson, litigation director for the Southern Legal Counsel and the lead attorney for the plaintiff. “This decision vindicates that we all share the fundamental right to freedom of speech, no matter who you are or how much money you have.”

Law enforcement argued Vigue often walked onto roadways to collect donations, which created a threat to Vigue and motorists.

Vigue’s legal team argued Florida Statues 316.2045 "Obstruction of public streets, highways and roads," doesn’t "intend to obstruct or otherwise interfere with traffic." Vigue said he only goes onto the roadways when traffic is stopped.

In February 2019, Southern Legal Counsel sued St. Johns County Sheriff David B. Shoar and FHP Director Gene Spaulding on Vigue’s behalf along with co-counsel from the National Homelessness Law Center, with pro bono assistance from the law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP.

Prior court rulings found the statutes under which Vigue’s arrests were made to be unconstitutional, but they were still being enforced. In September 2019, the FHP firector came to a settlement with Vigue that limited enforcement of the challenged statutes statewide. FHP also began providing its officers with training and circulated a legal bulletin about removal of portions of the statute from the appendices of Florida’s Uniform Traffic Citations Manual.

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