Panhandling Upheld by U.S. Appeals Court

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Ohio and Michigan) upheld a lower court decision that found the Grand Rapids Police gave a ticket to two homeless people for asking for money.  The court ruled the statute that made it a crime to beg for money illegal.  The court found that this was an infringement on the free speech protections of the First Amendment.  The court found that the Supreme Court has never specifically ruled that an individual asking for money is engaged in expression, they did find that organizations were protected for soliciting charitable funds. 

The court found that Michigan had the right to regulate soliciting funds.  It could not prohibit begging for money by criminal law.  The Detroit News has a nice summary of the ruling here.  The two individuals, James Speet and Ernest Sims, sued in federal court to dismiss the ticket.  Speet was holding a sign that said, "Cold and Hungry, God Bless." He pled guilty when the police issued his ticket, and was unable to pay the $198 fine.  Speet spent four days in jail because he could come up with the cash and was not allowed to beg for the cash to pay the fine issued by the court. 

The other man was arrested on the anniversary of the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, July 4, 2011 and Sims asked on the street, "Can you spare a little change?" so that he could ride the bus.  The Grand Rapids police officer heard the conversation and arrested Sims on the spot.    Sims was a veteran of the US military and asked the officer not to send him to jail since it was a holiday.  He was given a ticket and had to pay the fine.  According to the Detroit News, three other appeals courts have upheld a person's right to beg for money.  

The State has to decide if they will appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court or ask the full sixth circuit to review the case.  Grand Rapids had given out 409 tickets for begging between 2008 and 2011, and 211 served jail time for asking for money.  The court is recommending focusing legislation on fraud and not the mere act of asking for money. 

Brian Davis

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