PHOENIX — It's official: You're free to beg peacefully for money or food in Arizona without fear of getting busted.

U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake on Friday signed an order which “perpetually enjoined and restrained” state and local police from enforcing the state's anti-begging law. Wake even required Attorney General Tom Horne to notify all law enforcement agencies of his order.

Friday's ruling is no surprise.

Officials in the city of Flagstaff, whose practices had brought the law into focus, agreed last month to change its practices. But the nails were hammered into the statute's coffin when Attorney General Tom Horne, after doing some legal research, agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union that the measure violates First Amendment rights of free speech.

Nothing in Friday's order bars police from arresting those who are aggressive and assault passers-by, but it specifically directs Flagstaff not to try to get around the order by trumping up other charges against individuals based only on peaceful begging.

Arizona ACLU attorney Dan Pochoda said this was not a simple question of citing beggars.

“Officers in Flagstaff went undercover to entrap people who in fact were asking for food because local businesses had put some pressures, it appears, on the department and Flagstaff officials to clean the street early in the day,” he said. Those charged were actually taken to jail where Pochoda said some were held for two or three days.

He said the purpose was to round up these individuals “before they commit other crimes (though) I'm not sure what those might be.”

Police have admitted the idea is to sweep the streets of panhandlers early in the day, before they can cause more problems later. The department even said that Operation 40 as it has been called — both after Interstate 40 which bisects the city and the 40-ounce bottles of beer popular with some — has resulted in an overall decrease in crime.

Pochoda said that practice — and the entire law — clearly is unconstitutional.

“It allowed the criminalization of protected speech, in this case, peaceful begging,” he said. “Courts have regularly found that such a provision is not constitutional on its face.”

And he took a specific slap at Flagstaff for its aggressive use of the statute and practice of taking people into custody.

“We think that the promotion of the interests of the businesses over the rights of individuals was intolerable and clearly unconstitutional,” Pochoda said.

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