Judge awards homeless man $150K in Missouri panhandling case

ST. LOUIS — A federal judge says a Missouri county cannot enforce ordinances that target panhandlers and violate their free-speech rights, and has awarded $150,000 to a homeless man who was cited 31 times.

Robert Fernandez has also been arrested four times in St. Louis County for soliciting without a license.

“County police officers repeatedly arrested and detained (Fernandez) for engaging in protected First Amendment speech, pursuant to an unconstitutional ordinance defendant implemented and enforced,” U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. wrote in his decision Tuesday.

The judge said the county cannot enforce an anti-vagrancy ordinance, one barring people from standing in a road to solicit, and another covering solicitor licensing, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Limbaugh noted that the county required a soliciting license only for those seeking “property or financial assistance” or selling or taking orders for certain items.

The judge wrote that the county had not supported its claims that the ordinances promoted safety for traffic and pedestrians.

Limbaugh said the ordinances were not applied to people who advocated for a political cause, solicited votes or were seeking petition signatures.

One of Fernandez’s attorneys, Bevis Schock, said Limbaugh didn’t stop the county from having ordinances that improve safety for pedestrians and drivers “but the way the county wrote this one (ordinance) was obviously an attempt to restrict speech by poor people.”

“They said it was OK for a politician to stand on the side of the street and ask for money, but not Robert Fernandez. I don’t think that helped their case,” Schock said.

Limbaugh also awarded Fernandez’s attorneys $138,515.

St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick told the Post-Dispatch that the county is reviewing the decision.