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Homeless Man Wins $150K As Judge Strikes St. Louis County’s Solicitation Ordinances

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Court Files
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Robert Fernandez, as shown in a photo his attorneys submitted as evidence in his lawsuit against St. Louis County.

St. Louis County officials have cited Robert Fernandez 64 times and arrested him four more in the last four years — all because he stood at the intersection of I-55 and Lindbergh and asked for money.

The people who called the police to complain about him didn’t allege he’d been aggressive or rude. They just said he was asking for money, and they didn’t like it.

“It’s bad enough I can’t even take my kids to a baseball game in the city because of all the homeless beggars,” one caller told St. Louis County Police, according to court files. “I’ll be damned if they’re going to start invading St. Louis County.”

Now a federal judge has thrown out two of the ordinances used against Robert Fernandez — and awarded him $150,000. His attorneys, Bevis Schock and Hugh Eastwood, were awarded another $138,515 in attorney’s fees.

'My Hair Stood Up'
Attorney Bevis Schock discusses his client's case on the air

Schock said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air that when Fernandez first reached out, he was “incredulous” that St. Louis County would ticket people for soliciting without a license.

“My hair stood up,” he said. “Surely within the parameters of the First Amendment right to free speech is the right to say, ‘I’m poor, will you give me money?’ Which is all Robert does. He stands there with a sign.”

Indeed, in a ruling issued Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh wrote that the St. Louis County ordinances represented an unconstitutional violation of Fernandez’s free speech rights. He struck down the ordinance barring people from soliciting financial assistance unless they get a license from the county. He also struck down language restricting solicitation at high-traffic intersections.

Limbaugh had previously issued a preliminary injunction striking down the county’s “vagrancy” ordinance, which, among other things, makes it illegal to be an “able-bodied man who shall neglect or refuse to provide for the support of his family.” That injunction now becomes permanent, Schock said.

Schock noted that politicians were one group exempt from the solicitation license requirement; they could ask for signatures at intersections, for example, even while others were restricted from asking for money.

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File photo / Evie Hemphill
Attorney Bevis Schock, photographed in January 2020.

“When the county counsel wrote the ordinance exempting themselves from the licensing requirement, they were doomed,” Schock said. That flew into the face of the legal precedent holding that speech restrictions must be content-neutral.

“They can’t decide ‘we like this content and we don’t like that content,’” he explained.

Schock said the county put on a full-force defense to the lawsuit. “They should have just given up,” he said. Because Fernandez’s lawsuit was a civil rights claim, the attorneys had a high likelihood of being awarded their fees on top of the money due to their client — and that did in fact happen, to the tune of $575 an hour.

Schock added that he is waiting to see whether the county will appeal Limbaugh’s ruling. He is hoping they’ll instead cut Fernandez a check.

“I hope it makes his life better,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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