ACLU sues Grand Junction over panhandling ordinance
Officials with the city of Grand Junction believe an ordinance passed last month to curb aggressive panhandling will not limit rights of free speech.
A lawsuit lodged by the American Civil Liberties Union and six local plaintiffs on Tuesday is challenging that notion, asking the courts to halt the ordinance before it is planned to take effect Sunday.
“While the city’s stated goal in passing the ordinance was to protect public safety by prohibiting aggressive panhandling and dangerous solicitation of motorists, Grand Junction has chosen to ban a wide swath of solicitation speech that is courteous, polite, nonthreatening, nonaggressive, does not pose a risk to public safety, and is squarely protected by the First Amendment,” reads the ACLU’s lawsuit.
Plaintiffs in the case include three Grand Valley residents who panhandle to make ends meet, Mary Jane Sanchez, Cynthia Stewart and Debra Browne; the nonprofit group Humanists Doing Good, whose members solicit donations at a booth, sometimes until after dark at Grand Junction’s farmers market; Eric Niederkruger, identified as an at-risk individual who could not legally be approached by panhandlers according to the ordinance; and Steve Kilcrease, a musician who works as a busker, sometimes at night on Grand Junction’s Main Street.
Grand Junction officials would not comment on the suit Wednesday, but said in a press release that the city will review the complaint and file a response with the court. The suit was filed in Colorado’s U.S. District Court.
“The city staff and council were very thoughtful in how we approached this ordinance and the circumstances that it addresses; I have not yet had time to fully consider the ACLU’s claims but will and certainly as appropriate and directed by council defend the city’s position,” Grand Junction’s city attorney John Shaver said in the release.
Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance limits the times of day, the locations and the manner in which someone is allowed to panhandle.
For example, panhandlers could not ask for money a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise; they cannot repeatedly request donations or ask for them in an obscene or fighting manner or by grabbing another person; and they cannot ask for money from others within 100 feet of an automated teller machine, a public bus stop or a public school.
Solicitors would be banned from asking for money from motorists on public roadways. Panhandlers cannot step into the road to accept donations. Solicitors could not knowingly ask for donations from an at-risk person, which is defined as someone over age 70 or under age 16, or who has a disability.
Grand Junction officials have long considered passing an ordinance to limit aggressive panhandling, and their resolve was solidified last year when business owners and others complained of panhandlers repeatedly or forcefully asking for donations on Grand Junction’s Main Street.
City councilors unanimously passed the ordinance during a Feb. 19 meeting.
The city’s webpage outlining the ordinance claims the limits do not ban panhandling, “it simply sets reasonable restrictions and expectations upon how the activity is conducted. It also may actually have the unexpected effect of making panhandling safer for those who are engaging in the activity.”
The site continues, “Despite what you may have read or heard, the ordinance is not about preventing the Girl Scouts from selling cookies or the Salvation Army bell ringers from ringing their bells, or any other charitable cause from conducting their fund raising. The ordinance is about preventing people from conducting solicitation in a way that is frightening, dangerous or threatening to others.”
A person cited for violating the ordinance would be subject to a misdemeanor charge, which has penalties or fines up to $1,000 or a year in jail.
The ACLU claims that the ordinance would not allow peaceful solicitation of donations.
For example, plaintiff Mary Jane Sanchez offers an account in the lawsuit of needing to panhandle to pay bills and buy gas to get to work. She panhandles on a public sidewalk off Horizon Drive and Interstate 70 and, at other times, in Grand Junction near ATMs and bus stops. She receives donations from people with disabilities and the elderly.
“Ms. Sanchez has also found it necessary to panhandle early in the morning — when it is still dark — in order to make sure that she has enough money to pay for gas to get to work in the morning,” the suit said. “Ms. Sanchez wants to be free to continue to engage in these peaceful and nonthreatening communicative activities, but that are forbidden by the challenged ordinance.”
A hearing in U.S. District Court on the plaintiffs’ motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to seek a temporary restraining order is set for 9 a.m. Friday.