This week, 31 cities across Colorado received letters from the ACLU demanding that they repeal laws restricting panhandling. The letters, which were sent Tuesday, August 28, all began in a blunt and unequivocal manner, though each was personalized to address the city's specific ordinances restricting people from asking for money in public.
Some letters began this way:
“Your municipality is one of at least seventeen in Colorado with a municipal code that makes it a crime to 'loiter for the purpose of begging'….The ordinance not only unfairly targets poor and homeless persons whose pleas for assistance are protected by the First Amendment, but it is also legally indefensible.”
Others began this way:
“Your municipality is one of dozens in Colorado with a municipal ordinance that criminalizes panhandling under a wide variety of circumstances that pose no threat to public safety….the municipal code unfairly targets poor and homeless persons whose pleas for assistance are protected by the First Amendment. These provisions are legally indefensible.”
But all of the letters cite case law, including a federal court case in 2015 that struck down a Grand Junction ordinance restricting panhandling, to argue that cities are violating the Constitution if they prevent anyone from soliciting money in a peaceful and non-intrusive manner. In a statement, the ACLU of Colorado notes that there have been at least 25 cases across the nation that challenge anti-panhandling laws, including a Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, and rulings in all found panhandling ordinances to be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.
The letters that the ACLU of Colorado sent out this week are part of a wider effort, coordinated by the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty, to strike down over 240 panhandling bans in twelve states. The cities that received letters in Colorado are: 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, NewCastle, Ouray, Palisade, Paonia, Pierce, Rangley, Timnath, Victor, Wellington, Windsor, Wray and Yuma.
This is not the first time the ACLU of Colorado has fought — and overturned — local panhandling ordinances in Colorado. In early 2015, the legal nonprofit took the City of Fort Collins to court over a panhandling ordinance, forcing the city to settle and strike provisions in its ordinance. Then Grand Junction had its law overturned in federal court that year, which included not just homeless plaintiffs, but representatives from Greenpeace who frequently ask for money in public. Under threat of legal action, Colorado Springs, Denver and Boulder revised or stopped enforcing their panhandling laws.
In a statement released this week, the executive director of the National Center on Homelessness and Poverty, Maria Foscarinis, wrote, “Punishing homeless people with fines, fees, and arrests simply for asking for help will only prolong their homelessness.”
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Denver, which was not among the cities that the ACLU contacted, has mostly stopped enforcing its panhandling law during recent years. In 2017, then-Denver police chief Robert White reiterated that DPD would not enforce the panhandling ban.
The University of Denver's Sturm College of Law compiled reports in 2016 and 2018 that tracked panhandling enforcement, as well as looked at how much money municipalities throughout the state were spending on laws that “criminalize" homelessness. While Denver has pulled back on enforcing its ordinance banning panhandling, the DU report claims that the city spent $1.4 million on panhandling enforcement between 2010 and 2014. Below is a breakdown of what six cities spent on laws targeting people experiencing homelessness during those years.