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Sixth Circuit Affirms that Michigan’s Panhandling Statute is Unconstitutional

August 26, 2013

Since nearly the beginning of the Herbert Hoover administration in 1929, a Michigan law has made it a criminal misdemeanor for any person “found begging in a public place.” MCL 750.167(1)(h). Enforcing this law, the Grand Rapids police department issued over 400 citations for its violation from 2008 through 2011. Among those whom the Grand Rapids police arrested were the Plaintiffs/Appellants in this case: James Speet and Ernest Sims, two homeless residents in Grand Rapids.

Plaintiffs/Appellants sued Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the City of Grand Rapids for declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that the anti-begging statute violated the First Amendment. As previously reported on this blog, the Honorable Robert J. Jonker held that the anti-begging statute violated the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Michigan’s Attorney General Schuette appealed.

The Attorney General fared no better on appeal. The Sixth Circuit recognized that the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that charitable solicitations for funds are protected by the First Amendment. And while the United States Supreme Court decisions arose in the context of charitable solicitations for organizations, the Sixth Circuit concluded that there is “no ‘legally justifiable distinction’ between ‘begging for one’s self and solicitation by organized charities.'”  See Speet v Schuette, Slip. Op. at 12 (citation omitted).

Attorney General Schuette argued that the anti-begging statute is justified by Michigan’s interest in preventing fraud, noting that panhandlers who display signs saying they are homeless often are not and the great majority of panhandlers use money for alcohol and drugs. While the Sixth Circuit agreed that the State of Michigan has a substantial interest in preventing fraud, the court concluded that that interest “can be better served by a statute that, instead of directly prohibiting begging, is more narrowly tailored to the specific conduct . . . that Michigan seeks to prohibit.” Id. at 16.

In sum, the Sixth Circuit sustained the facial challenge to the anti-begging statute, finding that the statute impermissibly “bans an entire category of activity that the First Amendment protects.” Id. at 15. At the ripe old age of 84, Michigan’s anti-begging statute has been laid to rest.

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