Colorado Springs Tosses Hundreds of Panhandling Cases ACLU Called Illegal

A few weeks back, we told you about major changes to panhandling enforcement in numerous Colorado cities after a judge in a Grand Junction case threw out that many of that community's restrictions on solicitation.

As we've reported, Grand Junction's ordinance, adapted in early 2014, "made it a crime to ask for charity after sunset or within twenty feet of an ATM or a bus stop," and also prohibited "asking for donations from people standing in line or seated at an outdoor café" according to the ACLU of Colorado, which challenged the provisions.

The ripple effects continue.

The Colorado Springs Police Department had already ordered its officers to stop enforcing a panhandling ordinance in their jurisdictions. And now, the City of Colorado Springs has dismissed charges, vacated outstanding fines and sentencing requirements, and voided warrants in a whopping 375 previously active panhandling-related cases.

This action appears to be in direct response to a letter sent by the ACLU to Springs officials back in September; see it below.

The letter argued that "the Colorado Springs Police Department, City Attorney’s Office, and Municipal Court are illegally enforcing the City’s panhandling laws against impoverished people who have not violated those laws. The City’s practice has resulted in poor people being fined and imprisoned — for as long as ninety days — under circumstances that cannot be legally or morally justified."

Specifically, the ACLU maintained that the Springs' panhandling ordinances exempted passive solicitation — meaning people who merely display a sign asking for help. "Nevertheless," the letter continues, "Colorado Springs police, city attorneys and judges are enforcing these ordinances" under such circumstances, thereby "illegally target[ing] impoverished persons whose pleas for assistance do not violate Colorado Springs’ solicitation laws."

In a response dated October 30 (it's also shared here), Colorado Springs City Attorney Wynetta Massey spends page after page explaining how authorities had been enforcing the ordinances in a tone that stresses officials' good intentions — after which she confirms that hundreds of cases have now been jettisoned.

ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein's statement about this turn of events resists crowing.

“We appreciate the City Attorney’s prompt, thorough and positive response to the ACLU’s reporting that homeless and impoverished individuals had been inappropriately cited, prosecuted and sentenced for violating panhandling laws that they didn’t actually violate," he writes:

“In addition to re-training police," Silverstein adds, "the City has appropriately taken corrective action with regard to hundreds of pending cases by quashing warrants, dismissing prosecutions and vacating pending fines and sentences of probation.”

Look below to see the ACLU's September letter and the more recent response from City Attorney Massey.

ACLU Panhandling Letter

Colorado Springs Panhandling Letter

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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