Homeless man wins $150,000 settlement against St. Louis County for panhandling laws

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ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (KTVI) – A homeless man takes on St. Louis County and wins big after a federal judge ruled the county’s laws against asking drivers for money are unconstitutional. After winning a $150,000 judgment, Robert Fernandez is back at the I-55/270/Lindbergh interchange asking drivers for money. He has yet to receive the financial judgment, however.

Fernandez’s attorneys say, as with the others working this same area with him, the goal is to simply get through the day. They can do so now without fear of arrest.

“It is legal to beg for money, just as it’s legal to ask for money if you’re running for office, to support your church group, or the Elks Lodge,” said attorney Hugh Eastwood. “The ordinance and the police were targeting an unpopular speaker for his speech and standing there with a sign that said, ‘God Bless, Homeless, Anything Helps.’”

In his ruling, Judge Stephen Limbaugh noted Fernandez has been cited 64 times and arrested four times since 2017 for violating St. Louis County laws requiring a solicitor’s license, restricting panhandling in traffic, and banning vagrancy. Limbaugh said all three laws violate 1st and 14th amendment rights to free speech and due process.

“You can’t arrest somebody for being poor but that’s what happened to Robert Fernandez,” attorney Bevis Schock said.

FOX 2 spoke with Fernandez on Wednesday while he was out at the interchange. He said this was very much a matter of free speech, otherwise, he had no comment on the issue. Another man who was working out here with Fernandez told us he figured the police would just find another reason to “run him in.”

Limbaugh’s ruling says while St. Louis County can enact traffic safety laws, those laws can’t single out asking people for money as opposed to other forms of roadside expression, such as “protesting, signature petitions, campaigning, or evangelizing.”

“How about Old Newsboys Day? How about the thing with the firemen raising money for muscular dystrophy? Do you see them getting arrested? Do you see them getting cited?” Schock said.

St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick said her team is reviewing the ruling and will decide the next steps. Meanwhile, Fernandez’s attorneys say there should be nothing to decide: pay Fernandez his due.

“I think he’ll be able to stabilize his life,” Schock said. “He’ll be able to get a place to live and not be homeless anymore.”

The ruling also orders the county to pay more than $138,000 in fees for Fernandez’s attorneys.

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