Morgantown is considering making repeal the law the focus of the federal lawsuit

MORGANTOWN – The Morgantown City Council will consider repealing the “fraud ordinance” that recently made the city the target of a federal lawsuit.

On Friday, the city posted the agenda for the May 7 council meeting. Included in that agenda: “An ordinance repealing Section 371.10 of the City Code, which prohibits the solicitation of persons traveling in vehicles with public rights of way.”

This is the same code section at the heart of a lawsuit filed April 22 in the Northern District of West Virginia by Mountain State Justice on behalf of Morgantown resident Anthony Rowand, who, the lawsuit states, was ticketed and fined imposed under this code section. nine times between June 2, 2023 and February 12, 2024.

According to the lawsuit, Rowand often acts at or near the traffic light near Hornbeck Road.

The law in question has been on the city’s books since July 2005.

It prohibits the solicitation of money or other objects of value in any manner with the intention that the money or objects be transferred from an occupant of a vehicle on a public road at that time and place. It also prohibits being on any part of a public highway to obtain business, goods or money.

Mountain State Justice claims this is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Specifically, they argue that the regulation is content-based, meaning that it only applies to individuals exercising their right to a specific type of expression: soliciting money, property, or business.

“The ordinance does not prohibit persons from using the same public forums of streets and highways within the City of Morgantown for speeches advocating a political candidate, for attending a public event, for distributing handbills or pamphlets to motorists expressing a public opinion promote or criticize. figure or issue or a religion or religious institution,” the lawsuit said.

Lindsey Jacobs, director of Mountain State Justice Advocacy and Access, said she is happy to see movement from the city, but there is still work to be done.

“It is unfortunate that the City’s unconstitutional conduct has harmed Mr. Rowan and led to this lawsuit, but we are pleased to see the City Council taking swift action to repeal the ban. Ideally, they would extend that same sense of urgency to tackling the twin crises of homelessness and housing affordability – criminalizing poverty is never the way to go.”

Last October, the Monongalia County Commission passed its ordinance governing pedestrian and vehicle safety.

Although that law started as a ban on cheating, it eventually changed to a ban on doing anything in the public right-of-way, meaning the law is substantively neutral, according to the commission and its attorneys.

Mountain State Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia immediately rose in opposition and threatened legal action against the county.

At the time of writing, no lawsuits have been filed.

The city office was not open for comment on Friday. The city traditionally does not comment on issues related to current or pending litigation.

Mountain State Justice is a nonprofit statewide legal services and advocacy organization.