Lawsuit Against City of Grand Junction's Panhandling Ordinance

Humanists Doing Good recently became one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City of Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance. The ordinance can be viewed here. We are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in the suit. The ACLU was in correspondence with the City about the overly broad language and constitutional violations present in the ordinance prior to filing a lawsuit and it is my belief that their warnings were not properly heeded. The City defined panhandling as, “ to knowingly approach, accost, or stop another person in a public space and solicit that person, whether by spoken words, bodily gestures, written signs or other means, for money, employment or other thing of value.” As you can read for yourself here (correspondence with senior staff attorney) and here (correspondence with city attorney), the ACLU received affirmation from the city’s legal team that the language was intended to be broad and that it would label several things as “panhandling” that most reasonable people would not, such as a non-profit soliciting funds from passersby. I believe that anyone reading this material carefully will see that there was due cause for concern.
 
In correspondence with the ACLU before the suit was filed, the City confirmed their view that the definition of panhandling would apply to “persons who passively and silently solicit by holding a sign asking for donations.”  If the Ordinance applies to these types of passive panhandlers, it seems likely the ordinance applies to street musicians who might solicit a donation by displaying an open guitar case on the sidewalk. They also confirmed that the ordinance applies to persons who hand out literature that asks for a donation. By the reaffirmed definitions of the City and its legal representatives, activities that Humanists Doing Good has carried out in the past and that we plan to do in the future would be classified as panhandling and would therefore violate the panhandling ordinance in several situations. Classified as panhandlers while silently soliciting people to fund a good deed or asking people verbally if they would be interested in funding a good deed, we would be committing a misdemeanor crime with possible punishment topping out at a $1000 fine and/or 1 year in jail or any combination of the two, whenever we solicit within 100 feet of either a bus stop or ATM machine.  We believe we were within such a radius of both bus stops and ATMs several times last year while soliciting for funds. Additionally, the ordinance would make it illegal to solicit for donations/panhandle earlier than 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset. Humanists Doing Good has solicited for donations after 30 minutes from sunset and could reasonably be expected to do so in the future.

Members of our board also found it offensive and illegal that the ordinance would force individuals who are legitimately panhandling and organizations like Humanists Doing Good to discriminate against people. If a person is over the age of 70 years old, they cannot be solicited for a donation and are considered to be “at risk” individuals according to how the ordinance was written and based on answers provided by the City’s legal team. One can only assume that the leap being made is that people over the age of 70 are incapable of managing their own finances and reaching their own decisions. Equally offensive, people with disabilities such as a disabled hand, foot or clear visual disability or people with any known mental disability cannot be approached for a donation as the City wrote and stated they intended the ordinance to be enforced.  While we certainly never intentionally target people over the age of 70 or people with any sort of disability for donations, it surely isn’t constitutional that we would be forbidden from speaking with them about joining our organization and/or making a donation. We currently have both members over the age of 70 and members with disabilities and to have to assume that they are “at risk” individuals who cannot be approached is discriminatory.

It is my opinion that the ordinance was clearly written with the intention of targeting the homeless, pushing them out of particular areas and to permit selective enforcement of the law. I believe that both the police department and City Council intended the ordinance to be unevenly enforced, yet had to use broad language to make their efforts seem less focused on targeting transients and the local homeless population.  If the law was to be enforced uniformly and in the manner that the City’s attorney stated it was intended, it would also needlessly affect a number of different people and groups. These are some of the reasons we chose to become directly involved in this suit and felt that our organization’s liberty and that of others was under direct threat, whether the ordinance would have ever actually been enforced against us or not.

All of this must be balanced with the memory that our local police force has been guilty of destroying property and damaging tents belonging to our local homeless community in the past. The city has numerous unusual signs around town discouraging people from giving money to panhandlers. While we do not assume that the City or our local police force are nefarious in any way, in fact, I would argue that the Police Chief appears to speak truthfully and fairly without doublespeak, it is clear that due diligence and defense of our rights and those of others is warranted. It must also be acknowledged that any criminal activity associated with “aggressive panhandling” that reasonable people would object to is already made illegal with existing laws. It is worth noting that the City heard no evidence that panhandlers were injured, caused injury or even congested traffic as the ordinance was being considered. Claims have been made about 377 calls about aggressive panhandlers, but the reality of the situation is that even Police Chief John Camper acknowledged that most of those calls were not actually related to aggressive panhandlers. They are logged in the police department’s database as related to “loitering.” Homeless-related service calls to the police department have actually remained steady or decreased in recent years.  Chief Camper stated, “One of the interesting things about the transient community, we really don't – you know, there is crime and then there is the perception of crime and people are very concerned about safety when they see transients and vagrancy and that kind of thing, but I must tell you that we don’t have what—a whole lot of what you’d call crime on, you know, the average citizen by a transient.” Both the board of Humanists Doing Good and the ACLU believe that the actual intent of the ordinance is not to address an actual problem of aggressive panhandling that cannot otherwise be addressed by existing laws, but it is rather aimed at decreasing the visibility of impoverished beggars.

Despite what you might read in the rantings of people like Josh Penry in the Daily Sentinel, anyone who actually reads the complaint filed in the suit will see that the ACLU is being very reasonable and only challenging portions of the ordinance which are deemed problematic and violate rights. In reality, stopping “aggressive panhandlers” is already possible through our existing laws. People are already not allowed to legally harass, stalk, grab, assault, expose themselves or do other activities that this ordinance states it is helping to prevent. Nobody is arguing that already criminal activities that panhandlers might do should be legal or that aggressive panhandling is a good thing. The ACLU has clearly indicated the portions of the ordinance that are reasonable, narrowly defined and that do not violate rights.

We will consider this ordinance to be a good thing if and when it reaches a point that it is not possible to think of scenarios where people who are down on their luck are being treated unfairly and in ways that the rest of us are not subjected to.

This ordinance, as it is currently written, works to further create a Catch-22 situation for needy people. For instance, our homeless shelter charges a small fee to stay the night and is located on the opposite end of town from where many other vital services are provided. This results in people typically needing money for transportation and housing, even in the homeless shelter. How is a homeless and unemployed person supposed to manage this as Grand Junction continues to restrict when, where and how these people can obtain even the bare minimum of funds necessary for survival in modern society? Having read the ordinance and all of its rules, it is difficult for me to recall the entire spiderweb of prohibitions and new rules being created. I can only imagine how many panhandlers this web can and likely would snare in the future. If all of the “bubbles” and zones around bus stops, ATMs, highways, parking lots and more were mapped out on a map of Grand Junction, people would be stunned at the minefield of anti-panhandling zones this ordinance will create.  This ordinance impacts far more than truly aggressive panhandlers. Part of our mission statement is to support equality and fair treatment for all, and we believe we have taken an important stand in supporting our mission with this case.

There is plenty more that can be addressed regarding this issue and you can feel free to contact Jesse Bond (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) with any questions.

Mar. 16th, 2014 - Roadside Cleanup



Help Humanists Doing Good do our part to clean up our local environment as we volunteer to pick up trash along our adopted portion of the highway. Our adopted portion of the I-70 Business Loop (aka 6 & 50) is just west of the Mesa Mall and extends to the interstate overpass. We will be avoiding areas currently under construction. Safety jackets and trash bags will be provided. We recommend bringing gloves and some people have found grabbing tools or spiked sticks useful for picking up trash in the past. Volunteers with yellow HDG shirts are encouraged to wear them.

Volunteers planning to participate should watch the two brief safety videos found at the following address: http://www.coloradodot.info/programs/adopt-a-highway/safety-videos.html

When: Sunday, March 16 from 10:00 am - noon

Where: Meet in the parking lot of Stewart and Stevenson at 2380 US Highway 6 & 50

Click here for the latest information or to RSVP on our meetup site.

Mar. 9th, 2014 - Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey Premiere


Would you love to watch the highly anticipated new Cosmos series with other people who appreciate science and reason? Join us for the premiere episode of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. The new documentary series explores how we discovered the laws of nature and found our coordinates in space and time. It is a follow-up to the classic 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which was presented by Carl Sagan. The new series' presenter is Neil deGrasse Tyson. Let's consider it to be similar to a midnight movie premiere... except with fans of science getting their geek on instead.

A variety of hot teas will be available and people are welcome to bring snacks to share. The show starts at 7:00 pm, but we are asking people to arrive at 6:30 to settle in and talk before the show starts.

When: Mar. 9th at 6:30 pm

Where: Directions to Jesse and Velvet's will be provided to everyone who RSVPs.

Click here to RSVP on our meetup site.