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Amid debate, Colorado Springs may join cities banning panhandling

November 15, 2012|By John M. Glionna
  • Signs like this may soon be banned in Colorado Springs, Colo. But there is a debate about whether that goes against the 1st Amendment.
Signs like this may soon be banned in Colorado Springs, Colo. But there is… (Alan Hagman / Los Angeles…)

Colorado Springs, Colo., city officials want to put their collective foot down on a major public headache: panhandling.

Officials in the community south of Denver are poised to outlaw solicitations for cash in a 12-square block area of downtown. The city council this week gave preliminary approval to an ordinance to outlaw various forms of solicitation and the measure is expected to receive final approval Nov. 27.

But Colorado Springs may be headed into some rough legal waters.

Cities large and small nationwide have resorted to the citation book to deal with the issue of homeless people who flag pedestrians and drivers with imploring -- and sometimes humorous -- signs, or sometimes with just an extended hand.

But in a growing number of cases, civil rights groups -- and the panhandlers themselves -- have sued on 1st Amendment grounds.

And the courts appear to be listening.

In Utah earlier this month, the city of American Fork agreed not to enforce its anti-panhandling law after a homeless man who had been cited several times for holding a sign on public sidewalks filed a federal lawsuit claiming the rule selectively barred free speech.

A civil liberties foundation in that state sued American Fork in October on behalf of Steve Ray Evans, claiming the law "discriminates among types of speech" and "depends solely on a person expressing the 'wrong' words."

"In order to bring in enough money to survive, Evans sometimes engages in panhandling," according to the ruling. "He has found holding a sign to be an effective means of communicating with people. He does not approach or speak to people unless invited to do so."

American Fork's case against Evans was dismissed and the city paid him $750 in damages. The city also agreed to reimburse $5,327.76 in attorney fees and court costs, according to the Salt Lake City Tribune.

Following Evans’ lawsuit, Salt Lake City decided to stop enforcing the state statute, which makes it illegal to “sit, stand or loiter on or near a roadway” in order to solicit a ride, money, employment or other business. A federal judge later ruled the law was unconstitutional and shouldn't be enforced.

A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found a 7% rise nationwide between 2009 and 2011 in the number of communities that passed anti-panhandling laws. The study included 188 cities.

Colorado Springs officials expanded a no-soliciting zone from 6 feet to 20 feet from building entrances downtown and banned soliciting along state highways.

But ACLU officials in Colorado say they have seen the Colorado Springs statute and warn that it’s illegal.

"The city attorney’s office sent me a draft of the new law several months ago and solicited my thoughts," Mark Silverstein, the ACLU’s legal director in Colorado, told the Los Angeles Times. “I told them as it was written, the ordinance was very clearly a violation of the 1st Amendment.”

He added, "One obvious flaw is that it violates the 1st Amendment principal that government can’t choose certain speech it likes while forbidding speech it doesn’t like."

Under the Colorado Springs law, Silverstein said, a person can stand on a downtown street with a sign that reads “Re-elect the mayor” but not one that solicits for breast cancer research. As written, the law also prohibits a Salvation Army Santa from ringing a bell for donations during the holidays or a street musician playing with an open guitar case.

"They want to stop aggressive panhandling but the law strikes down passive non-threatening polite panhandling and every other variety of speech," he said.

Silverstein said he shared his opinions with city officials by email, adding, “I didn’t get a response.”

Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher told The Times that the city has studied the issue for nearly eight years. In recent months, officials have held five public hearings, consulted hundreds of people, and decided that the future of the city’s downtown depended on a new get-tough law.

He says he does not recall his office sending a draft of the ordinance, adding he is open to their input.

"What people have failed to say is that these ordinances have also been upheld in communities nationwide," Melcher said, pointing out that the city had based the language for its law on a similar code in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which has been upheld on appeal.

"We know what we’re doing," he said. "We’ve done the research."

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