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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit today asking a federal judge to strike down a state law that criminalizes peaceful panhandling in all public places. The lawsuit was filed against the state attorney general and the City of Grand Rapids, which has made 399 begging-related arrests since 2008.
“Anti-begging laws that punish that most vulnerable segment of our society are not only harsh, they are unconstitutional,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. "Removing the reminders of poverty from our sight is not the answer to Michigan’s economic woes. We need laws and practices that provide compassionate solutions for our growing homeless population.”
In May, the ACLU of Michigan submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Grand Rapids Police Department seeking incident reports related to begging and panhandling offenses since 2008. The GRPD produced 399 incident reports of individuals prosecuted under the unconstitutional state statute. Collectively, individuals charged with begging between January 1, 2008 and May 24, 2011 were sentenced to 1,641 days in jail, which, according to estimates, costs taxpayers more than $60,000.
“Jail time is a harsh price to pay for being poor,” said Aukerman. “The ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment. However, throwing people in jail because they are poor or homeless is not only wrong, it’s illegal.”
The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Grand Rapids’ residents who have been repeatedly arrested or ticketed by police for violating the state’s blanket ban on begging in public. James Speet has been homeless for about two years and lives in a tent. Speet receives food stamps, and also collects bottles, cans and scrap metal to survive. He hopes to find work, and has been seeking employment by holding up a sign in public that reads “Need Job, God Bless.” Speet, who has been prosecuted multiple times under the unconstitutional state law, was most recently arrested in July for holding up the sign in Grand Rapids.
“I see people holding up signs throughout the city advertising restaurants or protesting and they don’t get arrested or ticketed,” said Speet. “I don’t understand why my sign is any different just because I’m homeless and looking for a job.”
Ernest Sims is a veteran who relies on a $260 disability assistance check and food stamps for survival. When unable to afford his expenses, he asks people for “spare change to help a veteran” on the public streets of Grand Rapids. On July 4, 2011, a Grand Rapids police officer arrested Sims, who was asking change for bus fare. Sims has since pleaded guilty and was sentenced to $100 or two days in jail.
According to the 24-page lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Michigan’s anti-begging law is unconstitutional because peaceful panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment. In addition, the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection as it allows other First Amendment activity to go on without incident, while punishing begging.
This is not the first time the ACLU has challenged anti-begging policies in Michigan. In May, the ACLU of Michigan successfully lobbied Royal Oak officials to repeal an unconstitutional ordinance that similarly punished peaceful panhandling on public sidewalks. Similar laws making it a crime to ask for financial assistance in public places have been struck down in states across the country, including New York, Florida, California, Massachusetts and Illinois.
In addition to Aukerman, Steep and Sims are represented by Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.
To read our complaint in this case, go to http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/BeggingComplaint.pdf
To read more about the 399 arrests in this case, go to http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/ArrestsFOIA.pdf
To read more about the Royal Oak Anti-Begging Ordinance, go to http://www.aclumich.org/issues/free-speech/2011-05/1556