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I Beg You To Reconsider Your Disorderly Person Ordinance: Michigan's Panhandling Statute Declared Unconstitutional

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Nichole Jongsma Derks
Foster Swift Municipal Law News
September 26, 2013

Beginning in 1929, Michigan law criminalized “begging in a public place.” MCL 750.167(1)(h). Recently, the Michigan anti-begging statute was struck down for violating the First Amendment, which protects free speech. In Speet et al v Schuette, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Michigan’s anti-begging statute bans a substantial amount of activity that the First Amendment protects. Prior cases established that charitable solicitation is free speech protected by the First Amendment. In Speet, the Court adopted the reasoning that there is no “legally justifiable distinction” between “begging for one’s self and solicitation by organized charities.” Id. at 12 (citing the dissenting opinion in Young v New York City Transit Authority, 903 F2d 146, 164 (2nd Cir. 1990)).

In Speet, Michigan’s Attorney General argued that the money collected by vagrants is often used to support drug habits or continue alcohol abuse rather than to meet basic needs. He also argued that the people panhandling may not be homeless or veterans, as the panhandlers’ signs often fraudulently convey. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized the Attorney General’s substantial government interests in protecting the public from fraud, crime, and undue annoyance. However, the Court concluded that a more narrowly tailored statute is necessary rather than punishing all begging activity.

Many municipalities have ordinances substantially similar to the state anti-begging statute. Please contact Foster Swift to review your local disorderly conduct ordinance to confirm whether it complies with the decision in Speet.