In difficult economic times, one would hope that the government would take measures to assist the poor and homeless. In Grand Rapids, however, the ACLU of Michigan discovered that police officers were arresting, prosecuting and jailing individuals for asking for financial assistance. In fact, between 2008 and 2011, Grand Rapids made almost 400 arrests under an archaic Michigan law that makes it a crime to “beg” in public.

In 2011 the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging the law as a violation of the free speech rights of two men. One man was arrested for holding up a sign on a sidewalk saying, “Need a Job. God Bless.” The other, a veteran, was arrested for asking a stranger for bus fare. Other people, including firefighters, regularly raise funds on the streets and sidewalks of Grand Rapids for charitable causes without being charged with a crime.

In a victory for free speech and the rights of the poor, Judge Robert Jonker ruled in 2012 that the Michigan law is unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement throughout the state. In August 2013 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, ruling that begging is protected speech.

(Speet v. Schuette; ACLU Attorneys Miriam Aukerman, Dan Korobkin and Michael J. Steinberg.)

To view the full 2013-2014 Legal Docket, click here.

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