The fate of Portland’s ban on panhandling in street medians is in the hands of a federal judge.

Attorneys for the city and for three residents who say the ordinance is unconstitutional filed their final arguments Monday in U.S. District Court.

It’s unknown when Judge George Singal will rule in the case, which is similar to a legal dispute in federal court in Massachusetts.

The plaintiffs argue that Portland’s ordinance prohibiting pedestrians from standing on medians is too broad and that the city exaggerated the public safety hazards to justify the ban.

They also argue that state laws are adequate to deal with people who create dangerous conditions by being drunk or disorderly or blocking traffic, and that city officials could focus enforcement on any intersections where safety becomes a problem.

“They conceded at trial that they didn’t try that approach before putting in this law burdening perfectly peaceful speech,” said Kevin Martin, an attorney with Boston-based Goodwin Procter who represents the plaintiffs, in an interview Tuesday.


The city argues that the ordinance is needed so police can be proactive in preventing accidents. Medians are inherently dangerous places to be, officials argue.

In its final argument, the city accused the plaintiffs of raising “odd” and “diversionary” arguments to “obfuscate” the real issues of the case.

“It’s all about safety,” said city attorney Trish McAllister in an interview Tuesday.

The Portland City Council adopted the ban in July, saying it’s intended to protect the pedestrians who stand in medians and the people who drive past them.

Portland’s ordinance prohibits standing, sitting or staying in a median except to cross a street. A median is defined as any “paved or planted area of public right-of-way, dividing a street or highway into lanes according to the direction of travel.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine challenged the ordinance and Goodwin Procter represented the plaintiffs: Wells Staley-Mays and Michael Cutting, two political activists; and Alison Prior, who has stood on medians holding a sign asking for money.


In October, the city announced that it will limit enforcement of the ban until the legal challenge is decided. It said police will enforce the ordinance only when people in medians appear to be drunk or under the influence of drugs.

Both sides made oral arguments before Judge Singal during a one-day trail in November.

The three plaintiffs said the ordinance prohibits them from getting their messages out to large numbers of people.

Prior testified that she collects significantly less money panhandling on sidewalks, where competition is intense. In his final argument, Martin said that’s a good measure of how the ban limits Prior’s ability convey the message that she is poor and needs help.

Martin also said the city has overstated the public safety risk. While complaints about panhandlers in medians increased by nearly 25 percent from 2012 to 2013, Martin said that amounted to only one or two additional calls a week.

He noted that the city could show only three accidents involving street medians in the last five years. One accident involved a pedestrian, but the pedestrian was not panhandling and was hit by an unlicensed driver.


The city countered that medians are unsafe regardless of the activity. McAllister wrote in her final argument that preemptive laws, like those prohibiting jaywalking, are common to protect public safety.

McAllister said she is “pretty confident” about the case because an ordinance banning panhandling in medians in Worcester, Mass., was upheld in a federal court there.

An appeals court will take up that case on Wednesday, said Martin, who also is arguing to strike down Worcester’s ordinance.

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

Twitter: @randybillings

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