ACLU calls on BART board to reject 'unconstitutional' anti-panhandling ban

Lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday called on the BART board of directors to  forgo any potential "unconstitutional" ordinance that would prohibit panhandling on the agency's trains.

In its public comment letter, the ACLU warned that panhandling, busking, and other forms of solicitation are free speech protected under the First Amendment as well as state law. The statement comes in response to recent efforts by Board Director Debora Allen to ban such solicitations, saying her constituents don't like to be bugged for money as they travel to and from work. On Thursday, she made her proposal official: No asking for money inside of BART gates. Inside stations before the gates would be OK, but on the platforms or trains would not.

BART considers panhandling ban

"BART should provide resources to those in need as their policies indicate, not ban constitutionally protected free speech," said Abre' Conner, staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. "We hope this meeting reminds the board that when people get on BART, their civil rights come with them."

The ACLU noted that the city of Sacramento recently tried to adopt an anti-panhandling ordinance that was stopped by the Eastern District Court of California because it targeted people based on the content of their speech. No panhandling bans have made it to the Supreme Court. But in recent years, all lower courts ruling on this issue have found that laws imposing restrictions on sidewalk and roadside solicitation are unconstitutional.

Allen had proposed earlier this week to make it illegal to panhandle on any train or on BART properties, like station platforms. 

Rider Shannon Hennesey told KTVU in a previous interview that she is often bothered by the panhandlers.

"Pretty much every day when I'm putting money onto my card, someone will come up to me and ask me for change, a couple dollars for BART or the bus or something like that," Hennesey said.

Other riders said they are bothered by the dancers asking for spare change. 

"I don't want to see people dancing or whatever they're doing. I'm just going from point A to point B. I don't need all that stuff," Anthony Olguin said.

While aggressive panhandling like physically blocking someone or making threats is already illegal, a kinder approach is not, and some riders say they see no need to make a change. P'liyah Dogih, a rider, does not want any type of ban. 

"Everyone is entitled to say no if they don't want to give them money," she said.