A 67-year-old amputee with congestive heart failure sued Belton, Mo., claiming a cop threatened to arrest him and confiscate his wheelchair because he was panhandling for money for food, and for a $500 wheelchair battery.
Represented by the ACLU, Roger Walker says Belton’s panhandling law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
“Missouri resident Roger Walker is a 67-year-old amputee who has been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure. Walker’s health conditions confine him to a motorized wheelchair,” he says in his June 29 federal complaint.
In April 2014, he says, as he panhandled in Belton, a Belton police officer “told Walker that he would arrest Walker, make him pay a hefty fine, and impound his wheelchair unless Walker stopped soliciting and left Belton immediately and that Walker would be arrested, fined, and his wheelchair impounded if he was caught panhandling in Belton again.”
Walker says he left town and did not return for almost two years.
Belton, pop. 23,000, is south of Kansas City.
On April 16 this year, Walker says, needing $500 to replace the battery in his motorized wheelchair, and needing money for food, he returned to Belton, where he sat on a highway shoulder holding a sign: “Any help would be a blessing / thank you.”
A different Belton police officer told him to leave or be arrested for panhandling.
Walker says he knows another person who was arrested and is being prosecuted for panhandling in Belton.
Walker and the ACLU say that panhandling is an expressive activity protected by the First Amendment, and the repeated threats to arrest him, and the original threat to take away his wheelchair, violate due process.
The city ordinance contains a “vague exception to its prohibition on solicitation,” but it does not provide “reasonable opportunity” to know when it is and is not legal to solicit money in Benton, Walker says. Belton thereby “authorizes or encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement” of the law.
The ordinance states: “No person shall stand in a roadway for the purpose of soliciting a ride, unemployment, business, donations, or gratuities from the occupant of any vehicle. The restriction shall not apply to organizations, social clubs, civic groups, school groups, etc., conducting legitimate fundraising events.”
The term “etc.” itself, in a law, might raise eyebrows.
Walker says he wants seek donations in Belton. He seeks a restraining order and injunction, nominal damages and costs of suit.
Belton Police Lt. Travis George did not return calls seeking comment.
Walker’s attorney Anthony Rothert, with the ACLU of Missouri, could not be reached for comment over the Fourth of July weekend.
Published by Courthouse News Service.