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Sixth Circuit Rules Unconstitutional Michigan Law that Makes Begging a Crime
A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday that an old Michigan law criminalizing begging is unconstitutional and violates free speech rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. The court upheld the decision by a lower court holding it was wrong to arrest people or issue them tickets for begging in Grand Rapids.
Just between 2008 and 2011, the court found, 211 people had been jailed and 399 arrested for begging for food or change.
Writing for the panel, Judge Boyce Martin observed, “Michigan’s interest in preventing fraud can be better served by a statute that, instead of directly prohibiting begging, is more narrowly tailored to the specific conduct, such as fraud, that Michigan seeks to prohibit.”
In the instant case, law enforcement in Grand Rapids arrested two homeless men, James Speet and Ernest Sims for begging.
In January 2011, the police arrested Speet for standing on the sidewalk holding a sign “Cold and Hungry, God Bless.” Speet received an appearance ticket; pleaded guilty; was unable to pay the $198 fine imposed upon him, and spent four days in jail.
Five months later, Speet was again picked up holding a sign “Need Job, God bless,” standing between a sidewalk and a street. This time Speet received pro bono counsel, and the prosecution dismissed the begging charge.
Again in 2011, Ernest Sims was seen asking a pedestrian for bus fare: “Can you spare a little change?” Grand Rapids police immediately arrested the homeless veteran.
The court observed, “After Sims, a veteran, requested that he not be taken to jail, because it was the Fourth of July, the officer agreed to give him an appearance ticket. Later Sims appeared without counsel in court on the begging charge. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100.”
The ACLU took up the cause leading to the anti-begging law being declared unconstitutional in Michigan.
However, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Bill Schuette told the media that the ruling is under review, and Schuette’s office does not believe begging is a protected form of free speech.