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Homeless men sue Seminole County, call anti-panhandling law unconstitutional

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — Attorneys for Rodney Wilson say he’s a known figure around the Fern Park area, where he can be found holding his sign and asking passers-by for money despite the threat of arrest.

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Wilson is now one of two men suing Seminole County, calling its decade-old anti-panhandling law an unconstitutional violation of his First Amendment rights.

The law, passed in January 2015, prohibits “aggressive” panhandling in many public spaces in the county, which it defines as approaching or following pedestrians, blocking pedestrians, vehicles or entrances to buildings, repeatedly requesting, using profane language, soliciting while under the influence or working in groups.

The county implemented the law after panhandling became a major issue in 2014. Officials said they responded to an average of six complaints per day that year, many from a single intersection.

Read: “It’s tragic:” Census finds Central Florida’s unsheltered homeless population has more than doubled

Attorneys for Wilson and the other plaintiff, Carl Faustin, said the two men had repeatedly been warned against asking for charity by deputies, causing both to limit their panhandling activity to the detriment of their survival.

They said Seminole’s law singles out panhandling against similar forms of conduct in public places like gathering petitions or advertising for a church.

“Because the Ordinance restricts only certain types of speech, it is content-based and subject to strict scrutiny,” the complaint states. “Further, because it is not narrowly tailored to any compelling government interest, nor is it the least restrictive means of advancing any governmental interest, it is an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.”

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Attorneys said since 2015, the law has been used to make more than 130 arrests, resulting in 858 cumulative days in jail and $39,147 in fines and court costs.

In addition to damages for the two men, they asked the judge to throw the law out.

The law firm behind the suit, Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), aren’t strangers to this topic in Central Florida. They successfully challenged Ocala’s anti-panhandling law in 2021, causing the city to rescind it.

They’ve also sued to stop Daytona Beach’s law, which was blocked from enforcement in 2023 while the court case continues.

“We are bringing this lawsuit to force Seminole County to focus on constructive solutions to homelessness rather than arrest and jail,” SLC Executive Director Jodi Siegel said in a press release published to her organization’s website.

Read: Temporary injunction halts Daytona Beach panhandling ordinance

Upon WFTV reading the ordinance, an independent attorney who represents governments said the county would have an uphill battle to defend it.

In their filing, SLC attorneys said they tried to get the county to voluntarily rescind its ordinance last summer, but the county refused and promised to defend it.

Seminole County staff and attorneys were unavailable to answer WFTV’s after-hours request for a response to the lawsuit but said information would be available when offices reopened on Thursday.

The lawsuit was filed on the same day results from an annual count of homeless persons was released. It showed Seminole County’s “unsheltered” population more than doubled, from 74 persons in 2023 to 182 in 2024.

An additional 258 people were counted as “sheltered,” up from 200 last year.

The tally found Seminole County and Sanford had a combined 275 emergency shelter beds to serve its population.

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