The American Civil Liberties Union has sent letters to 31 cities in Colorado, demanding those cities repeal laws that restrict or ban panhandling.
According to an ACLU statement, the letters are part of a nationwide effort to target cities in 12 states that ban or restrict panhandling.
The ACLU letter went to the mayors or top officials in the towns and cities of Aguilar, Alma, Berthoud, Blue River, Brush, Central City, Columbine Valley, Commerce City, De Beque, Del Norte, Estes Park, Fairplay, Frederick, Garden City, Granby, Idaho Springs, Julesburg, La Jara, Mancos, New Castle, Ouray, Palisade, Paonia, Pierce, Rangley, Timnath, Victor, Wellington, Windsor, Wray and Yuma.
The letters indicate that panhandling is a form of charity protected by the First Amendment. These ordinances not only unfairly target “poor and homeless persons whose pleas for assistance are protected by the First Amendment, but it is also legally indefensible. ... While the process of repeal is unfolding, law enforcement should be instructed not to enforce this ordinance.”
Whether the letters are a precursor to lawsuits is not yet known. John Kreiger, a spokesman for the ACLU of Colorado, said the organization doesn’t talk about lawsuits that haven’t been filed. The letters are intended to make the cities and towns “aware of a liability they have” unless and until the ordinance is repealed.
Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney for ACLU of Colorado, said in a statement that “outdated ordinances, which prohibit peaceful, nonintrusive requests for charity, must be taken off the books. As courts across the country, and here in Colorado, have recognized, a plea for help is a communication that is protected by the First Amendment. ”
The ACLU pointed out that a federal court in Colorado sided with them in 2015 and struck down a Grand Junction ordinance that “restricted the circumstances under which individuals and organizations could ask for charity.” The ACLU said many of the ordinances passed by the towns and cities targeted with the letter Tuesday are “similar to or even broader than the Grand Junction restrictions, which were found unconstitutional and subsequently repealed.”
“Punishing homeless people with fines, fees and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director at the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. “Housing and services are the only true solutions to homelessness in our communities.”
State lawmakers in Colorado have tried for several years to create a similar “Right to Rest” law, but those bills have failed to clear even the Democratic-controlled House.