Federal court ruling striking down Michigan's ban on panhandling doesn't change much in Ann Arbor
A federal court ruling striking down Michigan's longtime ban on panhandling in public places won't change much in Ann Arbor since the city already is 16 years ahead of the state on the issue.
Senior Assistant City Attorney Kristen Larcom said the city established its own ordinance regulating panhandling in 1996 in response to federal court decisions in other parts of the country that indicated begging for money was a free speech right protected by the First Amendment.
Ann Arbor's tolerance toward panhandling has stood in contrast to a 1931 state law that considers any "vagrant" or "person found begging in a public place" guilty of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a fine of up to $500.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
The opinion came out of a civil suit brought by two Grand Rapids men arrested last year for begging in public.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented the two men and argued the city of Grand Rapids enforced the state's panhandling ban 399 times between Jan. 1, 2008, and May 24, 2011.
But now that will change.
"Anyone who's enforcing state law can no longer do that," Larcom said. "Grand Rapids was enforcing state law, so it was not that they had an ordinance that was struck down."
Ann Arbor's ordinance, which city officials are confident isn't affected by the ruling, allows panhandling to take place with the exception of prohibitions on aggressive begging in certain areas of the city.
That includes a ban on panhandling on public buses, inside or near parking structures, from a person in a vehicle, from customers in outdoor seating areas, within 12 feet of a bank or ATM, or within 12 feet of Nickels Arcade, the Galleria and the Pratt Building on Main Street.
The City Council tweaked the ordinance last year to also prohibit panhandling in front of the downtown library and within 12 feet of any public alley.
But elsewhere in Ann Arbor, including many parts of downtown, panhandling is fair game, as anybody who spends much time walking the city sidewalks knows.
"An ordinance that is like Ann Arbor's should withstand a constitutional challenge," Larcom said. "But they can't enforce state law anymore. That's clear. That's statewide under this federal decision."
Ann Arbor is unique for diverging from state law in 1996, as most communities even now simply go by the state's panhandling ban.
"That was the city ordinance up until 1996 like everybody else," Larcom said. "The city changed it in 1996 to read basically as it does now. The reason was because of other federal court decisions that prompted us to feel that this would be more enforceable.
"In this particular type of thing, cities can have ordinances that are different," she explained. "And we used to have exactly what was in state law. The city felt (having its own ordinance) was better."
The Michigan State Police up until now has enforced the state ban, including on highway ramps where Trooper Duane Zook has focused his attention on connecting with those in need and finding ways to help them with whatever problems led them to panhandling.
Sgt. Mark Thompson of the state police post in Brighton said he thinks the ruling won't do anything to lessen or increase panhandling on highway ramps. Despite not being able to enforce the state ban any longer, he said, state police still have some legal tools at their disposal.
"You can't impede traffic. If somebody is at an intersection and they come up and start impeding traffic, that's a civil infraction," he said. "And that's how we would enforce it. It doesn't have to be panhandlers. It could be anybody. We would enforce the traffic law."
But with the state ban struck down, Thompson acknowledged, there's not much state police can do now to stop a panhandler from accepting money from a motorist while traffic is stopped.