Portland, foes of controversial median strip ordinance to face off in one-day trial

Posted Oct. 21, 2013, at 5:35 p.m.
Tony Sargent, who said he came from Florida to try to get custody of his daughter, panhandles on the median strip at the intersection of St. John Street and Park Avenue in Portland on July 5.
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Tony Sargent, who said he came from Florida to try to get custody of his daughter, panhandles on the median strip at the intersection of St. John Street and Park Avenue in Portland on July 5.

PORTLAND, Maine — The city of Portland and a trio of residents suing over a newly enacted ordinance they see as unconstitutional will square off in court in an expedited one-day trial next month, the city announced Monday afternoon.

At issue is a controversial ordinance which prevents people from stopping in city median strips, a measure civil liberties and homeless advocates derided as unfairly targeting panhandlers, who had gravitated in recent years toward the high-traffic locations to seek handouts from passing drivers. Police and other ordinance supporters said the rule was necessary to protect public safety, as panhandlers and other median strip demonstrators were dangerously close to passing vehicles.

Until the court case is resolved, the city will not enforce the ordinance unless police discover median strip occupants “who are openly and obviously impaired by drugs or alcohol and posing a threat to traffic,” according to a Monday announcement issued by Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian.

The ordinance language was approved by the City Council in July, a year after a similar measure was rejected because of free speech concerns.

Neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister — a city attorney who works with the Portland Police Department — wrote in a memo to the council at the time that because the updated ordinance language doesn’t specifically block “panhandling,” it’s legally defensible. She wrote that because the rule would restrict “any person” and is “unrelated to the content of expression,” it would stand up against a First Amendment challenge.

That challenge came to fruition in late September, when American Civil Liberties Union of Maine Legal Director Zachary Heiden filed a federal lawsuit against the city on behalf of residents Michael Cutting, Wells Staley-Mays and Alison Prior.

Heiden wrote in his complaint that Cutting and Staley-Mays aim to be able to share political opinions through demonstrations in the median strips, while Prior depends “on assistance from strangers for basic necessities” and wants to “stand peacefully and quietly on a median with a sign that says, ‘Please Help.’”

The attorney wrote that the city overshoots its “stated goal of protecting public safety” with ordinance terms that are too broad and ultimately infringe on his clients’ constitutionally protected freedoms of expression, among other things.

The two parties have now agreed to argue their respective cases in a one-day, expedited trial on Nov. 19, Hill-Christian announced Monday.

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