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ACLU warns 84 Michigan cities and towns to change their local panhandling laws

Ernest Sims was one of the plaintiffs in the case. He was ticketed and arrested in Grand Rapids, Michigan for panhandling.

Dozens of Michigan communitiesare getting letters from the American Civil Liberties Union warning them that their anti-panhandling laws may be unconstitutional.

Over the summer, a federal appeals court ruled Michigan’s anti-panhandling law was unconstitutional. 

The case decided by the U.S. Court of the Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati stemmed from the arrest of two Grand Rapids men in 2011 for begging. James Speet and Ernest Sims were represented by the ACLU.

The appellate opinion says the law "would chill a substantial amount of First Amendment-protected activity."

Dan Korobkin is with the ACLU.   He says the old law was just unfair.

“You can stand on the sidewalk and collect money for charity.  You can collect money for the Salvation Army or for your school’s field trip,” says Korobkin, “but if you are poor and you want to collect money for yourself that’s what’s illegal under these ordinances and the state law that’s been declared unconstitutional.’

More than 80 Michigan cities and towns, like Lansing and Warren, still have local ordinances on the books based on the state panhandling law that was struck down.  The ACLU says those local laws should be repealed.

Courts have upheld so-called aggressive begging ordinances to protect the public from harm.

“Of course, there’s nothing wrong with making it illegal to harass people, to commit fraud, assault, trespassing…these things are already illegal,” says Korobkin, “What’s unconstitutional is to prohibit people from peacefully standing on the sidewalk and asking for spare change.”

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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