Denver police stop enforcing panhandling ordinance

Denver police will no longer ticket and arrest people for panhandling – at least until City Council rewrites Denver’s rules to comply with the First Amendment.

Late last week, Robert White, police chief, ordered officers to stop enforcing the panhandling law that boosters say protects business owners and critics say criminalizes homelessness. White was responding to a letter sent to the city by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado and last week’s U.S. District Court decision striking down portions of Grand Junction’s similar ordinance.

Law enforcement in Colorado Springs last week also stopped enforcing major sections of that city’s panhandling rules, acknowledging police had been issuing tickets that were not just constitutionally dubious, but also outside the limits of the city’s ordinance.

The ACLU is challenging these laws, arguing that panhandling is a form political speech about the conditions of poverty. Asking for money from strangers is not unlike charities like Girl Scouts, Greenpeace and the Salvation Army fundraising on public sidewalks.

“We commend Denver for taking prompt action to suspend enforcement of a panhandling ordinance that violates the First Amendment rights of persons who peacefully ask for charity in public places,” said the ACLU’s Mark Silverstein in a statement.

The ACLU plans to continue to challenge panhandling laws statewide.

“We will be asking city attorneys throughout Colorado to review their panhandling ordinances in light of the federal court’s decision,” Silverstein said. “Most of those ordinances will need to be repealed or dramatically revised.”

Below is the letter from Chief White to Denver police officers.

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Photo credit: Eli Christman, Creative Commons, Flickr