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City leaders, legal experts push back on proposed panhandling ban in Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids City Hall and La Grande Vitesse.
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Grand Rapids City Hall

Proposals that would ban panhandling and make it illegal to "sit, kneel, recline or lie down" in parts of Grand Rapids seems to be going nowhere after residents and city leaders spoke out against it at Tuesday's commission meetings.

The proposal for new ordinances came from the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, which submitted a letter to the city asking for the new laws earlier this month. Business leaders, especially downtown, have complained of aggressive panhandling, and other problems associated with a growing number of people in the city without homes.

More than 100 people signed a letter supporting the proposed ordinances, including the leaders of the city’s biggest hospitals and two of its homeless shelters.

But many residents and legal experts bashed the proposal, saying it would criminalize homelessness.

“In essence, these ordinances would criminalize acts that are not only constitutionally protected, but deeply human,” said Dayja Tillman, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Michigan.

What the Chamber proposed

The proposals would make it illegal to ask for money within 15 feet of a business entrance in the city, or within 150 feet of any intersection, among many other places.

They would also ban sitting or lying down on sidewalks and streets, with some exceptions.

“In essence, these ordinances would criminalize acts that are not only constitutionally protected, but deeply human.”
Dayja Tillman, legal fellow with the ACLU of Michigan

“It shall be unlawful for any person to sit, kneel, recline or lie down in the public right of way upon the surface of any public right of way, or upon any bedding, chair, stool, or any other object placed upon the surface of the public right of way,” the proposal reads. “It shall be unlawful to leave private property unattended in the public right of way.”

The proposal would make exceptions for people attending parades or other events, or people with a medical condition.

Violations could result in fines of up to $100 for a first offense, rising to $500 for subsequent offenses, plus up to 90 days in jail, under the Chamber's proposals.

"The City has a responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents. The proposed regulations are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling and substantial governmental interest, while preserving ample alternative areas for the valid exercise of constitutional rights," reads the letter submitted in support of the proposed ordinances. "This action, paired with previous, ongoing and future investments, will contribute greatly to reversing the loss of access to and enjoyment of public places and the sense of fear, intimidation, disorder and actual danger to public health, safety and welfare."

But legal experts say if the city were to accept the proposals and pass the ordinances, it could face legal consequences of its own.

“Imagine an elderly woman who uses a cane that needs to take a seat downtown after a short walk downtown,” said the ACLU’s Tillman. “This ordinance would require she have a quote-unquote medically-confirmable disability to prevent prosecution — basically a doctor’s note just to sit.”

Tillman said the ACLU of Michigan opposes the ordinance.

A history of legal issues

The organization was also was involved in overturning a statewide ban on panhandling nearly a decade ago in a case that involved the Grand Rapids Police Department.

In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down a statewide ban on begging that dated back to 1929. The Appeals Court judges ruled that asking for money is protected by the First Amendment.

The case, Speet v. Schuette centered on the arrest of two men, James Speet and Ernest Sims, who were arrested for begging in Grand Rapids in 2011. Grand Rapids ticketed Speet in January for holding a sign that read “Cold and Hungry, God Bless.” When he couldn’t pay the fine, he was held in jail for four days. Sims was arrested by a GRPD officer in July that year for asking, “Can you spare a little change?”

In addition to the case over Michigan's begging law, Grand Rapids already faces multiple legal issues stemming from alleged civil rights violations. This summer, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights formally charged the GRPD with racial discrimination over two incidents, among dozens that were reported to it. Last week, the family of Patrick Lyoya filed a $100 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city for "racial profiling" during the traffic stop that led to Lyoya being shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer. The officer, Christopher Schurr, was fired and now faces charges of second degree murder.

But the long and high-profile history of alleged civil rights violations in the city could cause additional legal trouble if the city adopted the proposed ordinances on panhandling said Gary Mouw, an attorney with Varnum, who specializes in litigation.

“The ordinance in itself could be unconstitutional as drafted and proposed,” said Mouw.

“But there’s this risk of — to the extent that Grand Rapids police enforce it, and enforce it either in an arbitrary manner, or an overly-aggressive manner — that falls within this trend that a good plaintiff’s lawyer, or a civil rights lawyer will weave into the narrative to potentially bring additional claims against the city of Grand Rapids and its police force.”

At commission meetings on Tuesday, commissioners and other city leaders said they had no plans to move forward on the ordinances proposed by the Chamber.

“I think we’re well sensitive to making sure … that we don’t utilize enforcement to solve homelessness,” said city manager Mark Washington at a meeting of the city’s public safety committee. “Because that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Kyle Lim, a member of the public safety committee pushed back, saying that people can be fined for intoxication or defecation in public when they don’t have a home in the city, and those fines can lead to jail. Lim said the city has invested in housing recently, but those investments haven’t been enough to ensure enough homes are available for all.

“[To] move towards or even considering ordinances that would further penalize those community members I think is an outrage,” Lim said.

Washington responded, confirming the city’s leadership has no plans to adopt the Chamber’s proposed ordinance.

“The staff did not recommend any of the ordinances on panhandling or sitting and lying in public spaces.”

Instead the city will rely on existing ordinances, Washington said, and look for ways to investing in housing and mental health supports to address the problem more holistically.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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