A man who is homeless in the D.C. area is suing the Washington Metro transit agency, alleging transit police have illegally stopped him from panhandling outside a busy rail station near the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In his lawsuit, John Burke, 30, said he and his companion dog stand outside the Smithsonian Metro station or the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station while Burke panhandles for money.
Burke, who suffers from a traumatic brain injury, is commonly seen sitting near a wall by the Smithsonian station's entrance near the USDA building, the suit says. He has faced a series of citations, evictions or arrests by Metro Transit Police since 2016 for panhandling, according to his lawsuit.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said the arrests were a violation of Burke's First Amendment rights. The suit also argues Burke is requesting money in an area that is more than 15 feet away from the rail stations' entrances, which his attorney said abides by panhandling laws and prior court rulings.
"Panhandling is protected speech, the areas where Mr. Burke were [sic] panhandling were public forums, the policy and practice does not serve a significant government interest...." the suit said.
Burke is asking for the definition of "panhandling" in a D.C. statute to be declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment. His attorney said the suit could also ease burdens faced by others who panhandle for money from passengers outside rail stations in the District.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the suit. The agency's online guide for riders says, "Panhandling and soliciting of any kind are prohibited on Metro."
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In his suit, Burke provides photos of the area in which he typically panhandles, including a photo of him holding a sign that reads "Grateful for Anything."