ACLU, Wayne Law Clinic Challenge Waterford Township's Ban on Begging

February 27, 2014

DETROIT – In an effort to protect the free speech rights of the poor, the Wayne State Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Clinic filed a federal lawsuit today asserting that Waterford Township’s ordinance banning all begging is unconstitutional. It is the first lawsuit filed by the clinic, which is a joint project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Wayne State University Law School.

“It is not a crime to be poor in this country, yet Waterford Township charged our client with a crime for simply asking for financial assistance,” said Carrie Floyd, a Wayne State law student. “Courts across the country have struck down laws banning all begging as a violation of the right to free speech. It’s time for cities and townships in Michigan to repeal these laws once and for all.”

In April 2012, Tiffany Cuthrell was ticketed and charged with a crime for “begging in public” because she held a sign saying, “In Love, Out of Gas,” while her then-boyfriend played guitar as a means to solicit donations to help them raise gas money so they could afford to visit family. 

In Love, Out of Gas: Photo of Tiffany Cuthrell and her sign.

“The officers made me feel less than human when I was ticketed,” said Cuthrell. “I just hope this case will prevent others from being harassed for simply holding up a sign and trying to survive.”

After the ACLU of Michigan intervened on behalf of Cuthrell during her criminal prosecution, Waterford Township dropped the charges; however the Township has yet to repeal the unconstitutional ordinance. The ACLU of Michigan subsequently filed a public records request to determine the number of times the ordinance had been enforced, but was told by Waterford Township police that it would cost the ACLU nearly $26,000 to collect that information.

In 2011 the ACLU of Michigan challenged a Michigan law that was nearly identical to the Waterford Township ordinance. The United States Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the law in 2013, ruling that begging, like charitable requests from the Girl Scouts or nonprofits, is constitutionally protected speech. . After the ruling, the ACLU of Michigan sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that anti-begging ordinances on their books are unconstitutional and should be repealed.

In addition to Floyd, Cuthrell is represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg, who is also the director of the Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Clinic. The clinic, which was created in January, provides Wayne Law students with an opportunity to gain practical skills and experience while litigating civil rights cases.

Key News and Documents
Read the legal complaint in this case.
In Love, Out of Gas: Photo of Tiffany Cuthrell and her sign.
Read about the ACLU case successfully challenging the Michigan anti-begging law
Watch "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Challenging Michigan's Anti-Begging Ordinance"