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New Hampshire panhandler military vet to get $89K in settlement

New Hampshire panhandler military vet to get $89K in settlement
The city of Manchester, New Hampshire has agreed to pay a military veteran $89,000 after police cited her for panhandling. The vet argued the ordinance under which she was charged violated her Constitutional rights, and the court agreed.

“I feel that I was treated very unfairly by the Manchester police and its officials,” Theresa Petrello said in a statement. “I hope this settlement, as well as the court decision, will cause local communities to rethink how they treat poor people.”

Petrello was arrested for panhandling in 2015. Last year, the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and New Hampshire Legal Assistance filed a civil lawsuit in US District Court against the city on her behalf.

As early as January 2015, the Manchester police department developed and implemented a policy in which they charged, detained and/or arrested panhandlers for allegedly “obstructing vehicular traffic on public streets” under New Hampshire’s disorderly conduct statute, according to the legal complaint filed by the ACLU.

Police had installed signs across Manchester urging people not to give money to panhandlers because it could be fatal. In a public letter, Manchester police chief Nick Willard said donations were better directed to agencies that deal with homelessness, mental illness and addiction.

“Even if they’re not addicted to drugs, they’re panhandling for alcohol, they’re panhandling for cigarettes,” Willard said in July. “They’re panhandling for those things that we as a society don’t provide for your basic needs, and I think people need to understand that.”

Petrello is a veteran of the US Navy and the US Army, and was honorably discharged from both branches.

“Since leaving military service, Ms. Petrello has struggled to get by financially. She has been steadily employed but mostly in low-wage jobs, including as a manager for a McDonald’s Restaurant and a call center,” said the complaint.

Petrello began experiencing health problems in November 2014 and obtained military disability benefits to make ends meet. Before the benefits could start she ran out of money to live and pay rent. By the end of May 2015, she began panhandling, carrying a sign “Veteran. Have Proof. Anything Will Help Please.”  

On June 3, 2015, a Manchester police officer cited Petrello for disorderly conduct after several drivers stopped to hand her money while she was standing with a sign on Maple Street. According to court documents, she never stepped into the street, but one vehicle had to wait for another while the driver handed her a donation.

The charge against Petrello was later dropped and she stopped panhandling in the city, according to the documents. Petrello sued Manchester both for the ordinance and for the policy of cracking down on panhandlers using the state disorderly conduct law, according to New Hampshire Union Leader.

A federal judge in September ordered the city and several others in New Hampshire to cease enforcement of unconstitutional ordinances that ban people from receiving charitable contributions from individuals in motor vehicles.