DENVER – The Colorado Springs Police Department, City Attorney’s Office, and Municipal Court are illegally enforcing the City’s panhandling laws against impoverished people who have not violated those laws, according to a letter sent yesterday to the City Attorney by the ACLU of Colorado. According to the letter, the City’s practice has resulted in poor people being fined and imprisoned—for as long as 90 days—“under circumstances that cannot be legally or morally justified.”
The City’s two panhandling ordinances specifically exempt individuals who engage in passive solicitation—meaning that people who merely display a sign inviting charity do not violate the ordinances. Nevertheless, an ACLU investigation found that all three major arms of the Colorado Springs municipal justice system – police, prosecutors, and judges — are routinely enforcing the ordinances against people who engage in passive solicitation.
“The police, prosecutors, and the municipal court are all involved in citing, prosecuting, and sentencing poor persons, sometimes to jail, for crimes they did not commit,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Rebecca Wallace. “These astounding extra-legal exercises of power strongly suggest that none of these offices are respecting the limits of their legal authority, at least when it comes to poor and homeless people.”
There are two sections of the Colorado Springs Municipal Code, Section 9.2.111 and Section 10.18.112, which address solicitation. The definition of “soliciting,” which applies to both sections, states that “soliciting does not include passively standing or sitting with a sign or other indication that one is seeking donations.”
The ACLU of Colorado reviewed all citations since January 2013 for violations of Section 9.2.111 and found that more than one-third were issued to a person who was displaying a sign inviting charity. Over that same period, police issued 892 citations for violation of Section 10.18.112. The ACLU reviewed two dozen of those citations and found that more 90 percent were illegally issued to people who engaged in passive solicitation and did not violate the law.
Rather than dismiss the unlawfully-issued citations, the City Attorney’s Office regularly prosecuted the cases, usually against poor or homeless defendants who had no attorney present. Colorado Springs Municipal Court judges then entered convictions, imposing fines and, in some cases, jail sentences, even though the defendants had not violated the law. In one particularly alarming case, a municipal court judge sentenced a 58-year-old homeless man to 90 days in jail for soliciting with a sign.
In today’s letter, the ACLU of Colorado demands that Colorado Springs immediately stop illegal enforcement of the solicitation laws, dismiss pending prosecutions of individuals charged with passive solicitation, and initiate procedures to vacate any sentences that are based on convictions for conduct that does not violate the ordinances.
The ACLU’s letter comes at a time when the Colorado Springs City Council is considering an ordinance that would make it a crime, punishable by up to six months in jail, to sit on the planters or the sidewalks downtown.
“Colorado Springs is already wielding its enforcement powers to target poor and homeless persons for extra-legal, discriminatory, and fundamentally unfair treatment,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “We urge the City to rethink how its criminal justice system interacts with residents who are experiencing poverty. Instead of adopting yet another measure that targets the poor, the City needs to get its house—and its justice system—in order.”
In 2012, the ACLU challenged a Colorado Springs ordinance that attempted to create a “Downtown No Solicitation Zone.” After the ACLU obtained a preliminary injunction, the City repealed the ordinance and paid the ACLU $110,000 in attorney’s fees.
Read the ACLU Letter to Colorado Springs Regarding Illegal Enforcement of Panhandling Laws: http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-09-14-Massey-ACLU2.pdf
Read ACLU Statement on the Proposed “Sit-Lie” Ordinance in Colorado Springs:
Visit the ACLU of Colorado Criminalization of Homelessness Campaign Page: