Florida law firm representing two unhoused men sue to stop Seminole County's panhandling ordinance

The Southern Legal Counsel, a nonprofit in Gainesville, is suing Seminole County because they say an anti-panhandling ordinance is unconstitutional.

Lots of places have regulations saying people can’t panhandle. And lots of places have been sued and had to walk back those laws.

It’s already happened in Ocala, and it’s happening now in Daytona.

Seminole County is the latest target. In Seminole County, soliciting donations isn’t allowed.

People FOX 35 talked with had mixed feelings about that. 

"It doesn’t seem to prevent them," said Catherine Vergopia. "Every day, there’s a guy out asking for money in that street corner."

"I feel like it’s extra hard for people right now," said Stephaie Kinswater.

Chapter 232 of Seminole County’s Municipal Code addresses "any person who panhandles or otherwise demands money, gifts or donations."

That right there, right off the bat, is what attorney Dan Marshall says is unconstitutional.

"The big issue here is because the content of what's being said determines what the ordinance applies," said Marshall. 

It says that type of "aggressive panhandling is disturbing and disruptive" and "contributes to.. a sense of fear, intimidation, an disorder."

Marshall says, under Seminole County’s Ordinance, you can walk up to someone and ask them to sign a petition, but you can’t ask them for a dollar – he says that means the ordinance limits free speech.

"The other problem here is that, just practically speaking, this doesn't solve the problem either," Marshall added.

The complaint says Seminole County’s ordinance has resulted in 130 arrests, leading to sentences of 858 total days in jail and almost $40,000 in court costs. 

"Our message is that these resources are better used to solve the underlying problem rather than trying to enforce an unconstitutional ordinance like this," said Marshall.

Southern Legal Counsel represents its clients for free. However, if it wins, Seminole County will have to cover its attorney’s fees. 

So taxpayers are getting hit no matter what – either for the County to defend itself in this lawsuit or to arrest panhandlers.

"I think right now we need to do more for the homeless to reduce that issue and provide them other resources," said Kinswater.

"As long as they don’t interfere with traffic or accost people, I’m fine with it," added Vergopia.

The attorneys are also asking for a preliminary injunction.

If that’s granted, it would mean the law can’t be enforced while this is playing out in court.

If the Southern Legal Counsel wins, they want the ordinance thrown out altogether.