ROGERS CITY - A panhandling ordinance in Rogers City has caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union, and the city's attorney said the law will likely be repealed soon.
The Michigan chapter of the civil rights advocacy organization sent City Attorney Mike Vogler a letter putting the city on notice: A similar Michigan law was struck down as unconstitutional by a United States Court of Appeals ruling, on the grounds that banning peaceful begging violates the First Amendment. The ACLU sent letters to 84 municipalities with similar laws, most of which are larger cities, asking them to ensure the rights of the poor aren't being violated.
On Tuesday, Vogler told City Council the law has never been enforced in his time as city attorney, and Rogers City Police Chief Matt Quaine agreed that begging has never been an issue.
Vogler said the city will comply with the request, and he's grateful the ACLU brought the matter to his attention. To repeal the ordinance, city council will hold a public hearing on another ordinance to strike down the existing one. The hearing could happen as soon as Nov. 19.
"The city has an ordinance on the book that says, 'It shall be unlawful for any person to beg in any public place,'" he said. The ACLU "simply asked that we repeal the ordinance, and that in between now and when it's repealed that it not be enforced."
Sixth Circuit Appeals Court Judge Robert Jonker's opinion, cited in the Oct. 29 letter, states that illegal activities associated with panhandling and other behavior are already addressed by other laws. Rather than put a blanket ban on begging and violating the First Amendment in doing so, the government should instead direct laws at the "harmful conduct" it wishes to ban.
Citizens are already protected by laws against harassment, trespass, assault and fraud, ACLU of Michigan Staff Attorney Daniel Korobkin said. While some may not like it when a stranger asks them for money, the First Amendment protects everyone's right to free speech in public.
"That means seeing a very sad example of poverty in first-hand can be disturbing and make us uncomfortable, but rather than sweep those problems under the rug by making (begging) illegal, I think we need to work on other ways to address those persons' needs," he said.
Rogers City would be setting a good example by repealing the ordinance, Korobkin said. When laws are deemed unconstitutional, they should be taken off the books for several reasons. For one, it creates confusion for people in the city and its law enforcers. And if a police officer tried to enforce the law, the officer and the city could face a civil liberties lawsuit.
The possibility of a lawsuit is especially real now that Rogers City and other municipalities have been put on notice, Vogler said. He's never seen anyone begging in town, and believes it's likely more of an issue in bigger cities. Repealing the ordinance probably won't have any effect for Rogers City.
The ACLU has no plans as of yet to file suit against Rogers City or any other municipalities that received the letters, Korobkin said. Instead, he's hoping the notice and the court ruling will be enough.
"We're hopeful that, because the Sixth Circuit Court ruling is so clear on this issue, cities and townships that we've written will do the right thing and take this off their books," he said.
Rogers City's Municipal Code of Ordinances can be viewed online here: library.municode.com/index.aspx?clientId=12347