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ACLU Warns Frederick Officials That Panhandling Ordinance Won’t Withstand a Lawsuit

August 30, 2018
ACLU Warns Frederick Officials That Panhandling Ordinance Won't Withstand a Lawsuit

A man who declined to give his name stands Wednesday with a cardboard sign on 21st Avenue at Main Street in Longmont. The ACLU warned 31 Colorado municipalities, including Frederick and Berthoud, that laws against panhandling on their books are unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union is warning Colorado towns, including Frederick and Berthoud, that laws against panhandling that they have on the books are unconstitutional.

The towns are among 31 municipalities that received letters from the Colorado ACLU as part of a coordinated effort organized by the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty that is targeting 240 ordinances in 12 states.

The ACLU’s argument is that the “outdated” ordinances prohibit “peaceful, nonintrusive” requests for charity, and that pleas for help are protected by the First Amendment. The letters to the municipalities ask them to repeal their individual laws and, until that is complete, stop enforcing them immediately.

“An outstretched hand can convey human suffering, can remind passersby of the gap between rich and poor, and in some cases, can highlight a lack of jobs and social services,” ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Rebecca Wallace said in an ACLU news release.

Deputy Town Manager Kirstyn Jovanovich said the town had referred the issue to the its representative with Colorado Intergovernmental Risk Sharing Agency, a member-owned self-insurance pool.

Jovanovich said town officials had no comment on the ACLU’s letter, adding that those in the town government were busy dealing with board’s sudden decision on Tuesday to fire town manager Matt LeCerf. The town attorney then called an emergency board meeting on Wednesday and said that Tuesday’s vote was invalid, so LeCerf is still employed with the town.

Frederick’s 1998 law states that it is a “class 1 petty offense” to “loiter for the purpose of begging.” The law makes an exception for someone who is “exercising his or her rights of lawful assembly as part of peaceful and orderly petition for the redress of grievance.”

The ACLU warned that an October 2015 federal court in Colorado sided with ACLU of Colorado and struck down a Grand Junction ordinance that restricted the circumstances under which individuals and organizations could ask for charity.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court also decided in Reed v. Town of Gilbert that a municipality could not restrict where signs for religious services could be displayed. The decision had far-reaching consequences for cities’ panhandling ordinances.

Longmont had two laws on the books that officials stopped enforcing in 2015 after the court decisions — a law banning “aggressive begging” and a law banning solicitation “in or near a street or highway.”

Longmont City Council repealed those laws and put in place a safety-based approach that banned anyone from being on medians at nine intersections in the city, which Longmont attorneys reasoned would be safe from any First Amendment violation claims.

The safety-based median ordinance went into effect in May 2017.

Pamela Johnson contributed to this report.

Karen Antonacci: 303-684-5226, antonaccik@times-call.com or twitter.com/ktonacci

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