Judge Rules Michigan's Anti-Begging Statute Unconstitutional

August 27, 2012

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In a major victory for free speech, a federal judge late Friday struck down a state law that criminalized peaceful panhandling in all public places. The lawsuit was filed in September 2011 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan against the state attorney general and the City of Grand Rapids, which enforced the law 399 times between January 1, 2008 and May 24, 2011.

Once again, a federal court has ruled that the Constitution applies to rich and poor alike,” said Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney. “Michigan has joined the ranks of federal and state courts across the country finding that peaceful begging is protected speech and blanket restrictions are illegal. While the ACLU is not opposed to laws that protect citizens from threats, intimidation and harassment, jail time is a harsh price to pay for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change.”

The ACLU of Michigan had argued that the state’s anti-begging law is unconstitutional because peaceful panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment and violates the Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection as it allows other First Amendment activity to go on without incident, while punishing begging.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker agreed with the ACLU, stating:

“The Court’s conclusion comports with the decisions of every Circuit to consider similar restrictions… Indeed, virtually every court considering the constitutionality of blanket restrictions on begging has reached the same conclusion as this Court.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Grand Rapids residents who have been repeatedly arrested or ticketed by police for violating the state’s blanket ban on begging in public. James Speet receives food stamps, and also collects bottles, cans and scrap metal to survive. Speet has often sought and found odd jobs by holding up a sign in public that read “Need Job, God Bless.” Speet, who has been prosecuted multiple times under the unconstitutional state law, was arrested in July 2011 for holding up the sign in Grand Rapids. View the sign that Speet was arrested for holding.

“I see people holding up signs throughout the city advertising restaurants or protesting and they didn’t get arrested or ticketed,” said Speet. “I don’t understand why my sign was any different just because I’m homeless and looking for a job.”

Ernest Sims is a veteran who relies on a $260 disability assistance check and food stamps for survival. When unable to afford his expenses, he asked people for “spare change to help a veteran” on the public streets of Grand Rapids. On July 4, 2011, a Grand Rapids police officer arrested Sims, who was asking for change for bus fare. Sims pleaded guilty and was sentenced to $100 or two days in jail. Video: Watch Sims discuss his arrest and experience with poverty.

This is not the first time the ACLU has raised concerns about anti-begging policies in Michigan. In 2011, the ACLU of Michigan successfully lobbied Royal Oak officials to repeal an unconstitutional ordinance that similarly punished peaceful panhandling on public sidewalks.

In addition to Aukerman, Speet and Sims are represented by Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.

Key News and Documents
Watch "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Challenging Michigan's Anti-Begging Ordinance"
Read the court's decision
Read our brief in this case
Read more about the 399 arrests 
ACLU Commends Royal Oak for Repealing Harsh and Unconstitutional Ban on Begging