Court allows N.Y. to ban begging at transit stations

November 27, 1990|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Cities across the nation got the Supreme Court's implied permission yesterday to ban all poor people, including the homeless, from begging for money in subway and bus stations.

With no dissenting votes and with no explanation, the court turned aside an appeal by two homeless New York City men and a legal advocacy group seeking to challenge the constitutionality of a flat ban on panhandlers in New York's transit system.

That ban was upheld in May by a federal appeals court in New York City. It dismissed begging and panhandling as "nothing less than a menace to the common good," especially when it is done in crowded, busy subway stations.

Beggars in the subway, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said, create "the potential for a serious accident in the fast-moving and crowded subway environment."

The Supreme Court's action yesterday left that ruling intact. The order did not mean that the justices agreed with the lower court but only that they thought the case did not raise an issue worth their time. But lower courts are likely to interpret the order as a sign that bans on begging on public property are allowed.

In the past, the Supreme Court has said that people soliciting money cannot be banned from places that are generally open to the public, such as airport terminals or fairgrounds, because those places are "public forums."

But in the New York case, the lower court said a subway or bus station is not a "public forum" to which individual beggars who threaten the system's safe operation must be allowed entry.

In its ruling against panhandlers, the Circuit Court in New York had ruled that the transit system need not set aside a place inside its stations for individual beggars to ask passers-by for money and indeed may exclude them altogether. Under the ban, organizations that raise money for charity -- including donations to help the homeless -- are allowed to solicit in specific places inside the system.

Although the appeals court had said it had doubts that anyone has a constitutional right to beg for money in a transit station, it declared that the comfort and convenience of the passengers was more important than any right to beg. Panhandling, it said, is perceived by many commuters as "nothing less than assault, creating . . . the apprehension of imminent danger."

The ban, the appeals court had said, does not mean that the transit system is being reserved for "the privileged and powerful" but for ordinary working people and the elderly as they seek to go about their daily lives. The case was Young vs. New York City Transit Authority (No. 90-591).

*

In another order issued yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up -- for the first time -- one aspect of the constitutional controversy over so-called "rape shield" laws. These laws are designed to encourage women to report rapes by keeping their private sexual experiences out of the case as evidence.

At issue in a test case from Michigan is the constitutionality of state laws requiring individuals accused of rape or other sexual assault to give prosecutors advance notice before trying to offer evidence to show that the alleged victim had consented to have sex, because of past sex relations with the alleged attacker.

A Michigan court ruled (in Michigan vs. Lucas, No. 90-149) that such a requirement interferes with the accused person's right to challenge the accuser as a witness.

The Supreme Court's newest member, Justice David H. Souter, had drawn criticism from women's rights groups earlier this year because he had issued a ruling as a state judge that sought to protect the rights of those accused of rape to offer evidence to show that the women claiming rape had consented to have sex.

The court's grant of review of the Michigan case appeared to be merely a coincidence, unrelated to that controversy.

In another action yesterday, the court voted to leave intact a lower court decision that the American Medical Association had broken federal antitrust law by a 17-year-long boycott of chiropractors, during which it sought to persuade patients that chiropractors were an "unscientific cult."

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