Invoking Right of Free Expression, ACLU Demands that Manitou Springs Dismiss Criminal Charges Filed Against Texas Musician Under Unconstitutional Ordinance Forbidding 'Panhandling'

Affiliate: ACLU of Colorado
November 6, 2009 2:36 pm

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In a letter sent today to the City of Manitou Springs prosecuting attorney, the ACLU of Colorado relied on the constitutional right of free expression in demanding that the city dismiss criminal charges filed against a Texas musician accused of violating an unconstitutional city ordinance forbidding “panhandling.”

“Last spring, the Manitou Springs City Attorney correctly advised the City Council that the city’s blanket ban on ‘panhandling’ everywhere in the city is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “The council declined to take any action. Now the city is prosecuting our client and others for allegedly violating an ordinance that the city’s own legal advisor acknowledges is unconstitutional.”

The Manitou Springs ordinance defines “panhandling” as the solicitation of money or other things of value “where nothing of value is rendered in return.” The ordinance makes it a criminal offense to solicit or “panhandle” anywhere in the city, either on public or private property.

“Our client was carrying a guitar; he was not panhandling,” Silverstein explained. “Even if our client had been playing music and peacefully requesting donations, however, that activity is expression that is protected by the First Amendment. The City of Manitou Springs cannot constitutionally enforce this blanket ban on the peaceful and harmless activities it has wrongly defined as a criminal offense.”

The charge against the ACLU’s client was based on a citizen complaint signed by Nancy Sage Barnes, who has served on the Manitou Springs Economic Development Council and was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in 2007 and 2009.

Silverstein said the ACLU’s client has a court date on November 17 and will have to travel from his home in Texas unless the charges are dropped before then. The ACLU asked the city’s prosecutor to respond by November 9, and it also asked that the prosecutor dismiss charges against any other persons who are currently facing “panhandling” charges under the defective ordinance.

In a separate letter invoking the Colorado open records laws, the ACLU asked the City of Manitou Springs to provide copies of all citations issued in the last two years for violation of the unconstitutional panhandling ordinance.

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