Ban on Begging is Harsh and Unconstitutional, ACLU Tells Royal Oak Officials

January 13, 2011
Royal Oak, Mich. – In a letter today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan urged Royal Oak officials to stop enforcing an unconstitutional ordinance that punishes peaceful panhandling on public sidewalks.

“Anti-begging ordinances criminalize the most vulnerable segment of our society whose only crime is being poor,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. "The crackdown on people asking for money on the street comes at a time of increasing need in Michigan. Rather than enforcing harsh and unconstitutional laws, city officials should focus on compassionate solutions for the growing homeless population.”

Currently, it is a crime in Royal Oak for individuals to peacefully ask for money on all public streets and sidewalks. Although cities can enforce narrowly defined laws against aggressive and threatening panhandling, the ACLU of Michigan emphasized that Royal Oak’s ban on all begging is unconstitutional. In fact, state and federal courts have consistently ruled that begging in public spaces is protected speech under the First Amendment, striking down similar ordinances in New York, California, Massachusetts and Florida.

"The ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment,” said Korobkin. “However, city ordinances should not be used as a tool to silence the voices of innocent people who rely on charity to survive.”

According to public records obtained by the ACLU of Michigan through a Freedom of Information Act request, Royal Oak police have made at least 15 arrests for begging in the past two years. Many of those arrested were simply asking pedestrians for spare change in downtown Royal Oak.

In its three-page letter, the ACLU of Michigan warns, “[i]t is painful to be reminded of poverty and inequality when we come face to face with the neediest members of society on our cities’ streets and sidewalks. But sweeping these problems under the rug does not make them go away. It is not a crime to be poor, and it is not a crime to ask for charity.”

The ACLU of Michigan is asking city officials to instruct police officers to stop enforcing the ordinance immediately and for the City Commission to repeal it.

In addition to Korobkin, the ACLU of Michigan letter was signed by Richard H. Lobenthal, ACLU Oakland County Branch president, and Michael J. Steinberg, the ACLU of Michigan’s legal director.

Related Issues: