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ACLU demands 31 Colorado cities repeal anti-panhandling laws

Author: Marianne Goodland - August 28, 2018 - Updated: August 29, 2018

A homeless man who goes by the name of “Bear” sits at the corner of Bijou Street, in background, and the I-25 south Bijou Street exit ramp on Tuesday afternoon, October 26, 1999. Bear panhandles for money at this spot on a regular basis. (The Gazette file photo)

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Tuesday announced they have sent letters to 31 cities in Colorado, demanding those cities repeal laws that restrict or ban panhandling.

According to an ACLU statement, the letters are part of a nationwide effort to target cities in 12 states that ban or restrict panhandling.

The ACLU letter went to the mayors or top officials in the towns and cities of Aguilar, Alma, Berthoud, Blue River, Brush, Central City,  Columbine Valley, Commerce City, De Beque, Del Norte, Estes Park, Fairplay, Frederick, Garden City, Granby, Idaho Springs, Julesburg, La Jara, Mancos, New Castle, Ouray, Palisade, Paonia, Pierce, Rangley, Timnath, Victor, Wellington, Windsor, Wray and Yuma.

The letters indicate that panhandling is a form of charity protected by the First Amendment. These ordinances not only unfairly target “poor and homeless persons whose pleas for assistance are protected by the First Amendment, but it is also legally indefensible. … While the process of repeal is unfolding, law enforcement should be instructed not to enforce this ordinance.”

Whether the letters are a precursor to lawsuits is not yet known. John Kreiger, a spokesman for the ACLU of Colorado, said the organization doesn’t talk about lawsuits that haven’t been filed. The letters are intended to make the cities and towns “aware of a liability they have” unless and until the ordinance is repealed.

Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney for ACLU of Colorado, said in a statement that “outdated ordinances, which prohibit peaceful, nonintrusive requests for charity, must be taken off the books. As courts across the country, and here in Colorado, have recognized, a plea for help is a communication that is protected by the First Amendment. ”

The ACLU pointed out that a federal court in Colorado sided with them in 2015 and struck down a Grand Junction ordinance that “restricted the circumstances under which individuals and organizations could ask for charity.” The ACLU said many of the ordinances passed by the towns and cities targeted with the letter Tuesday are “similar to or even broader than the Grand Junction restrictions, which were found unconstitutional and subsequently repealed.”

“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”

State lawmakers in Colorado have tried for several years to create a similar “Right to Rest” law, but those bills have failed to clear even the Democratic-controlled House.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.