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Court: Mich. Panhandling Law Violates Free Speech

GRAND RAPIDS (WWJ/AP) - A federal appeals court has ruled a state law banning panhandling in public places is unconstitutional.

The Sixth U.S. Circuit court on Wednesday agreed with a lower court's opinion last year that the law violates First Amendment protections for free speech. The case stems from the arrest of two Grand Rapids men arrested in 2011 for begging.

The appellate opinion says the law "would chill a substantial amount of First Amendment-protected activity." It added that Michigan's interest in preventing fraud can be better served by a more narrowly tailored statute.

Click here to read the opinion (.pdf format)

James Speet and Ernest Sims were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, which called the ruling a "victory for free speech." Attorneys said the two men were repeatedly arrested or ticketed by police for violating the state's blanket ban on begging in public.

Speet was arrested for begging in Grand Rapids in Jan. 2011, while holding a sign that said: "Cold and Hungry, God Bless." The police gave Speet an appearance ticket, and he pleaded guilty to the charge. Unable to pay the $198 fine, Speet spent four days in jail.

Then, in June 2011, Speet was holding a sign that said, "Need Job, God Bless," while standing between a sidewalk and a street in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids police again arrested him for begging. After Speet secured pro bono counsel, the prosecution dismissed the begging charge.

Sims' case is similar. On July 4, 2011, Sims needed money for bus fare and asked a person on the street: "Can you spare a little change?" A Grand Rapids police officer witnessed Sims asking for change and immediately arrested him. 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.

Speet and Sims aren't alone -- Grand Rapids enforced the panhandling ban 399 times between Jan. 2008 and May 2011, the ACLU said.

"This decision reaffirms the principle that our Constitution applies equally to everyone, whether poor or rich," Miriam Aukerman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney, said in a statement. "Jail time is a harsh price to pay for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change."

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's spokeswoman Joy Yearout says the ruling is under review.

TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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