[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that the Michigan law criminalizing begging is unconstitutional because it violates free speech rights. A person convicted under the Depression-era law is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 90 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both. The three-judge panel unanimously upheld a lower court decision that said Grand Rapids police were wrong to arrest two homeless men in 2011 for asking for change. The court said between 2008 and 2011, 399 people were arrested or issued tickets for begging in Grand Rapids. Of those, 211 were sentenced to jail terms. The court reasoned:
As the Supreme Court has warned, statutes attempting to restrict or burden the exercise of First Amendment rights must be narrowly drawn and represent a considered legislative judgment that a particular mode of expression has to give way to other compelling needs of society. Where, as here, the statute unquestionably attaches sanctions to protected conduct, the likelihood that the statute will deter that conduct is ordinarily sufficiently great to justify an overbreadth attack. Michigan may regulate begging. As the Supreme Court has said, ‘[s]oliciting financial support is undoubtedly subject to reasonable regulation.’ But Michigan must regulate begging with due regard for the reality that solicitation is characteristically intertwined with informative and perhaps persuasive speech seeking support for particular causes or for particular views on economic, political, or social issues.
The state argued that it has an interest in preventing fraud and said not all who beg are “homeless and destitute,” or use the funds to meet basic needs. Rather, they often spend money on alcohol.
The US Supreme Court [official website] has not directly decided whether individual solicitation of funds is a protected right under the First Amendment [text], but it has held repeatedly the First Amendment protects charitable solicitations by organizations. Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor, said other courts have found aggressive panhandling is not a protected form of free speech, but there’s nothing the government can do to stop someone from “peacefully” standing on a street corner asking for money. Earlier this year the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official websites] issued a report which found that ordinances criminalizing homelessness may violate human rights [JURIST report] as well as the Fourth and Eighth Amendments [text]. The report condemned the criminalization of the homeless through various acts of living, such as sleeping or conducting personal hygiene measures in public spaces and suggests alternatives to reduce homelessness and implement preventative measures.