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New York City Judge Grants Class Action Status to State's Panhandlers

In the 15 years since a state anti-begging law was declared unconstitutional, authorities have continued to use the law to arrest thousands of people, attorneys say.

The law has been used in 3,000 to 4,000 improper arrests and thousands more summonses issued in New York City, according to Matthew D. Brinckerhoff, a plaintiffs' attorney in a lawsuit brought on behalf of anyone illegally subjected to the law. Elsewhere in the state, there have been at least 600 to 700 arrests, he said.

In a ruling critical of police and prosecutors, a federal judge granted class action status Tuesday to thousands of suspected panhandlers arrested or forced off the streets by police who used the law. U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's decision also made defendants of 553 law enforcement agencies in 62 counties throughout the state.

The judge said granting class action status was the only way to effectively prevent the law from continuing to be enforced statewide.

"As a consequence of being poor and homeless, most absent plaintiffs are uninformed, disenfranchised and without the means to bring individual actions in the hope of having their convictions overturned or their extant warrants vacated," she wrote.

U.S. District Judge Robert W. Sweet in Manhattan ruled in October 1992 that the state law violated the First Amendment. The law allowed the arrest of anyone who "loiters, remains or wanders about in a public place for the purpose of begging."

Scheindlin has repeatedly expressed dismay that the city has continued enforcing the law after it was ruled unconstitutional, though the city recently has insisted it has taken steps to stop.

"With respect to the city defendants the record in this case establishes their patterned unwillingness to voluntarily modify internal procedures in order to ensure compliance with court orders," Scheindlin said.

The facts of the case demonstrate that law enforcement agencies throughout the state will not remedy past incidents of illegal enforcement without a court-issued mandate to do so, she said.

Her ruling came in response to a June 2005 lawsuit brought on behalf of anyone arrested in New York City on charges resulting from the unconstitutional law, and she shortly afterward ordered the city to stop enforcing it.

The lawsuit seeks an end to enforcement of the law and money for people illegally subjected to it. The first plaintiff in the suit has settled with the city for $100,000.

Attorneys who brought the lawsuit recently extended its reach statewide after receiving data that showed enforcement of the unconstitutional law had continued throughout the state.

The chief of the city's Special Federal Litigation Division, Muriel Goode-Trufant, said her agency was reviewing the judge's decision and considering all legal options.

Brinckerhoff said the decision to grant class action status means "we will finally be able to put an end to this, after 15 years."

He said the class likely consists of between 5,000 and 10,000 people who were subjected to the law after it was declared unconstitutional, a ruling that was upheld by a federal appeals court.