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Denver, Boulder Panhandling Rules Changing Due to Sweeping Court Ruling

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Earlier this year, we reported about a settlement between Fort Collins and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado over the town's controversial panhandling ordinance.

Since then, the ACLU has scored even more important victories in regard to panhandling rules that put severe restrictions on solicitation.

A pair of U.S. District Court actions in regard to a panhandling rule in Grand Junction (see them below) has had ripple effects across the state, with the Denver Police Department and the Colorado Springs Police Department ordering officers to stop enforcing the ordinances in their respective cities and the Boulder City Council voting to repeal portions of its own regulations.

Such rules aren't identical from place to place. In the case of Fort Collins, ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein told us his organization's main objections were to edicts that outlawed panhandling in the evening hours or within 100 feet of an ATM or a bus stop.

The Grand Junction ordinance, adapted in early 2014, was even stricter. As noted by the ACLU, the provisions "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."

Grand Junction argued that these regulations were necessary to protect the public's safety, while the ACLU maintained that they violated the First Amendment rights of solicitors, be they individuals or organizations such as Greenpeace, which also took part in the lawsuit.

In June, the court sided with the plaintiffs, determining that the ordinance restricted speech on the basis of its content — in this case, requests for assistance. At that time, Grand Junction was ordered to "meet the strictest standard of judicial scrutiny," according to the ACLU.

Then, in a 39 page decision issued on September 30, Judge Christine Arguello determined that GJ had failed to do so and tossed out the offending rules.

Silverstein was pleased — and also far-seeing. In an October 1 statement, he said, “The ruling striking down Grand Junction’s panhandling ordinance will have ramifications throughout Colorado." And he was right.

Even before the Grand Junction decision, the Colorado Springs Police Department had stopped enforcing most provisions of its panhandling ordinances after conversations with the ACLU. And afterwards, as first reported by the Colorado Independent, the Denver Police Department did likewise.

Here's a copy of a letter obtained by the Independent in which Denver Police Chief Robert White explains the new policy to his troops:

The DPD policy will presumably be in place until the Denver City Council makes the necessary changes in the Mile High City's panhandling ordinance.

The Boulder City Council has moved even faster. Earlier this week, the Boulder Daily Camera reports, members repealed those portions of the panhandling ordinance there that were perceived to run afoul of the Grand Junction ruling.

Now gone are regs saying people can't ask for money if they're within five feet of a wall in the Pearl Street Mall or University Hill areas or ten feet from a food cart or a restaurant patio. Moreover, the language about aggressive panhandling has been rewritten to reflect the most recent court order.

“The ACLU does not object to carefully tailored regulations that target coercive, threatening, or menacing solicitations that actually invade the rights of others,” Silverstein stresses in another statement. “But we oppose, and the First Amendment prohibits, broad regulations that outlaw peaceful, polite, and nonthreatening requests for assistance.”

Here are the two Grand Junction court rulings.

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