ACLU Tells Judge Anti-Begging Law is Harsh, Unconstitutional

February 16, 2012 12:00 am

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan asked a federal judge today 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 made 399 begging-related arrests between January 1, 2008 and May 24, 2011.

“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. The ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment. However, jail time is a harsh price to pay for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit was filed in September 2011 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 receives food stamps, and also collects bottles, cans and scrap metal to survive. Speet had often sought employment by holding up a sign in public that read “Need Job, God Bless.” Speet, who has been prosecuted multiple times under the unconstitutional state law, was most recently arrested in July 2011 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 asked 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 for change for bus fare. Sims has since pleaded guilty and was sentenced to $100 or two days in jail.

According to ACLU’s 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. Similar laws have been struck down in states across the country, including New York, Florida, California, Massachusetts and Illinois.

The lawsuit was filed after 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, cost taxpayers more than $60,000.

In addition to Aukerman, Speet and Sims are represented by Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.

Key News and Documents

Document | Read the complaint in this case (pdf)

Document | Read more about the 399 arrests (pdf)

Press Release May 16, 2011 |ACLU Commends Royal Oak for Repealing Harsh and Unconstitutional Ban on Begging

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