Junction can’t limit panhandlers, judge says
DENVER — A federal district court judge Friday temporarily blocked enforcement of part of a Grand Junction ordinance aimed at limiting panhandling in the city.
U.S. District Judge Philip Brimmer told some of the six plaintiffs in the case, who were represented by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, that they had a “reasonable fear” that their First Amendment rights would be violated if the city were allowed to enforce a recently approved ordinance to stop “aggressive panhandling,” which was to go into effect Sunday.
But that order applied only to part of the ordinance the city approved last month, a section that deals with panhandlers on city streets that also are state or federal highways such as North Avenue or off-ramps to Interstate 70.
The judge also ruled that other plaintiffs in the case had no standing to challenge other sections of the ordinance that further restrict panhandling elsewhere in the city.
ACLU attorney Mark Silverstein, however, said he was fine with that ruling because it means those “passive panhandlers” aren’t subject to the new law, and therefore city police won’t be able to ticket them or order them to move on.
Silverstein told the judge that his clients, some of whom are Grand Junction panhandlers, had a reasonable fear that they would be targeted by city police after the ordinance goes into effect.
He based that on two documents: one from the Grand Junction Police Department about how it intended to enforce the law, and a letter to ACLU attorneys from Grand Junction City Attorney John Shaver about what he thought the law meant.
Silverstein said both indicated they planned to enforce the law not only against aggressive panhandlers, but passive ones, too.
But Brimmer said the part of the city ordinance that deals with panhandling away from highways is clear that in order for police to enforce the law against the ACLU plaintiffs, those panhandlers would have to approach people for money.
He said merely sitting on a sidewalk holding a sign and even orally requesting money didn’t constitute approaching, he said.
“I don’t see that any of them (the plaintiffs) fall within the scope of the ordinance,” Brimmer said. “I don’t believe they have a reasonable fear of prosecution.”
The judge said the law also couldn’t be interpreted to mean that panhandlers could be cited for “stopping” people for the purposes of giving them money based on how effective their signs or verbal requests for money were.
“It would be ironic to read (the ordinance) that the more appealing the message, the more likely you are in violation of it,” he said. “That’s backwards.”
Silverstein later said he got exactly what he wanted: a federal judge interpreting how the city can enforce the law, and sending a message to Shaver and the Police Department that they can’t go after the “poor” panhandlers the ACLU believes the new law was intended to target.
Shaver didn’t attend Friday’s hearing. Instead, the city hired Denver attorney Katherine Pratt, who works for the law firm of Berg Hill Greenleaf & Ruscutti.
Initially, Pratt told the judge that the city wanted to delay Friday’s hearing because it was willing to review with city police and the ACLU how the ordinance would be enforced, but couldn’t make the promise that it would do so before it goes into effect Sunday.
As a result, the hearing continued and Brimmer made his rulings.
Still, Silverstein said he was hopeful the city would discuss the matter with him before he files for a permanent injunction of the ordinance.
Brimmer said he was only assigned to the case because of the short timeline before the ordinance went into effect, adding that the permanent judge will be U.S. District Judge Christine Arguello, who will hear any future motions related to it.
Silverstein said the temporary restraining order will last until he can schedule a second hearing with Arguello on a permanent injunction, which could take days or weeks.