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New Hampshire town sued for harassing panhandlers

By Ted Seifer

MANCHESTER N.H. (Reuters) - A civil liberties group on Wednesday sued the police department of a New Hampshire town for what it says is a pattern of harassing panhandlers in violation of their constitutional rights.

The lawsuit, filed by the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union in federal court in Concord, accuses Hudson and its police department of violating the First Amendment rights of people who solicit charity on the streets of the town.

The group is representing Jeffrey Pendleton, 24, who was warned or cited by police for not having a solicitor's license on at least 18 occasions from March 2011 to March 2014, according to the complaint.

The American Civil Liberties Union, of which the New Hampshire group is a part, has successfully challenged anti-panhandling ordinances in several states.

The Hudson case is unusual because the town doesn't have an ordinance governing panhandling. The town's board of selectmen considered one in late 2013, but it was never adopted.

"The principle that panhandling is expressive speech goes back decades," NHCLU attorney Gilles Bissonnette said. "We've done our very best to combat ordinances that restrict our fundamental rights, but what we're very concerned with here is law enforcement simply acting like panhandling is illegal."

Hudson Police Chief Jason Lavoie said he hadn't had a chance to review the lawsuit and that he could not comment on pending litigation.

The chairman of its board of selectmen did not immediately return messages on Wednesday.

The lawsuit includes 42 pages of police reports and court documents detailing interactions in which police told Pendleton, who describes himself as homeless, and others that unlicensed soliciting was against the law.

Bissonnette said the Hudson Fire Department has been allowed to publicly solicit funds without a special license.

Hudson, a relatively well-off town of 23,000, is located across the Merrimack River from Nashua, the state's second-largest city.

The suit claims that the police officers' actions were meant to send a message: "Peaceful panhandling by the poor and homeless is unwelcome in Hudson, and all panhandlers should go back over the bridge spanning the Merrimack River to the City of Nashua."

Pendleton appeared on a video in 2013 produced by the Nashua Telegraph. "The Hudson police don't care if you want to get by or live or anything," he said in the video. "They just don't want you there doing it."

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Eric Walsh)

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