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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — Monday, United States District Judge Joe Heaton ordered that the City of Oklahoma City pay the opposing attorney’s fees and expenses in a total amount of nearly $1 million in a suit brought against the City for their panhandling ordinance of 2015.

The ordinance first tried to outlaw panhandling along roadways. Then, when challenged, the City changed its argument and said that it was a matter of “safety.”

The City ultimately lost the legal battle after it lasted five years and included an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court after a loss at the Circuit Court level. The Supreme Court chose not to hear the City’s appeal, and so, this could be the final word.

It is not known how much in actual payments the City paid for outside legal counsel or how much time was spent in the City’s legal department in their losing defense of the ordinance.

Attorney’s Fees

On Monday, 10th Circuit US Judge Joe Heaton ordered the City to reimburse the Plaintiff’s attorneys for the lion’s share of their work and expenses, though the amount was reduced from the initial request for attorney’s fees.

The final amount ordered for attorney’s fees was $986,350 and $2,676.56, for a grand total of $989,026.56 in taxpayer money to be paid by the City. That total does not include the money already spent by the City fighting this losing case.

Monday’s order carries the force of law, but can be appealed by either party.

An attorney with the City said that they will not appeal Judge Heaton’s decision on the attorney’s fees.

Response from homeless advocates

Free Press spoke with Dan Straughan, Executive Director of the Homeless Alliance. Straughan offered some perspective on the impact of the money the City will pay for their choice to defend the ordinance.

“$990,000. That’s housing and case management for a family for 83 years.”

He continued, “Or that could be a year of housing and case management for 83 families.”

“That would be a month of housing and case management for 1,000 people, maybe half of all people who experience homelessness in OKC. If the City spent a similar amount on their side of the litigation, then double that.”

We also spoke to Greg Beben of Legal Aid, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

“We’re happy with the results,” Beben said, “It’s been five years.”

Asked if there was a lesson to be learned by the City, Beben responded, “If you want to protect people’s safety, you can do so without affecting their First Amendment rights.”

Ordinance history

In 2015 the City Council of Oklahoma City passed the controversial ordinance that sought to prohibit persons from standing or staying in certain medians.

During hearings on the ordinance, dozens of community members addressed City Council, some pleading and some demanding that the Council reject the ordinance. 

Many, including local ministers, argued the morality of an ordinance that was aimed at criminalizing poverty by banning panhandlers from asking for money from medians. 

Representatives from the Muscular Dystrophy Association pointed out that the annual Fill the Boot fundraiser put on by firefighters would become illegal, denying the organization much-needed money. 

Representatives from the Homeless Alliance declared that this would take income sources away from magazine vendors from the popular Curbside Chronicle program. 

And, Representatives of the ACLU promised to take legal action against the City for violating First Amendment rights if they passed the new ordinance.

The public outcry failed to move the majority of the Council, who passed the ordinance with only two votes against it.

The ordinance was introduced as an anti-panhandling measure, but after a year or more of the ordinance being in place, the City revised it as a “safety ordinance” in an effort to make it less constitutionally oppressive. 

The original ordinance only allowed occupying a median if it was 35 feet wide or wider and 200 feet from an intersection, effectively making it impossible to legally panhandle from a median. 

The revision allowed occupation if the speed limit was 35 miles per hour or lower.

Challenge

After passage of the ordinance, a team of lawyers from the ACLU and Legal Aid of Oklahoma brought a suit against the City on behalf of several plaintiffs.

The first trial on the matter in District Court resulted in a win for the City. The attorneys for the Plaintiffs appealed the matter to the 10th Circuit US Court. In that jurisdiction the ordinance was found to violate the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs, recognizing a median as a public forum.

The City, in spite of the money spent on internal legal counsel and private outside counsel, chose to appeal the Circuit Court’s decision to the Supreme Court. The high court chose not to hear the case, effectively killing the ordinance.

Response

Amanda Carpenter of the City’s Municipal Counsellor’s Office spoke briefly to Free Press about the case.

Carpenter said that the City will not be appealing the Judge’s order for Attorney’s fees.

Carpenter was not involved with the ordinance in the early stages. The head of the litigation department drafted the early versions of the ordinance. Carpenter became involved after the litigation on the matter began.

In the early stages, Carpenter said, the City was in discussion with representatives from the ACLU to see if they had suggestions for how to move the ordinance forward. She reported that the ACLU had little to offer on the topic.

During the revision of the ordinance, Carpenter explained, auto speed was the largest factor in determining the danger to members of the public. While panhandlers were mentioned in some discussions, so too were the young sports teams that show up asking for donations seasonally.

We asked Carpenter when and why the ordinance was reframed from an anti-panhandling ordinance as it was originally docketed, to a “public safety ordinance” as the City has referred to it for the past five years. 

Carpenter was not involved in the case at that point but said the former Chief of Police, Bill Citty, had always considered it a safety issue. 

“He was concerned about the safety of people on medians since 2011. He testified to that,” Carpenter said of the former Chief.

Last Updated August 26, 2021, 8:27 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor