In Michigan, people who continue begging for money from the same person after receiving a “no” could face up to $100 in fines — money they often simply don’t have. This week the Michigan House Criminal Justice Committee approved House Bill 5103, the “Aggressive Solicitation Prohibition Act.”
The bill would forbid a variety of behaviors when people panhandle, such as making physical contact, blocking the path of the person they are soliciting, and “approaching or following a person in a manner intended to cause bodily harm.”
Rep. Mike McCready (R) introduced the bill in December 2015, saying it is meant to ensure that panhandlers “can’t come up to you and be aggressive or be intimidating in nature to ask or demand for a donation,” adding, “We’ve had instances in our district where, let’s say a mother with her children are parking and going into the grocery store, and they’ll come up and knock on the window, or catch them as they’re loading the car. And that can be a very compromising situation.”
But other state lawmakers and the ACLU of Michigan criticized the bill for its vague language and targeting a vulnerable population.
“Someone walking a certain way might be seen as aggressive to one person but not aggressive to another person,” Rep. Stephanie Chang (D) said. Chang, a member of the House Criminal Justice Committee, voted against the bill. “I just think there’s all types of implications, potentially along racial lines.”
“There are many people who may approach you in an aggressive manner as you walk down the street — abortion protesters, people selling things — yet we’re here singling out panhandlers for this,” said ACLU legislative liaison Shelli Weisberg.
In 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned Michigan’s previous panhandling law, which punished any public begging with fines of up to $500 or up to 90 days in prison. The police department in Grand Rapids recorded 499 arrests from this anti-begging law between 2008 and 2011.
These laws have become increasingly common. Like Michigan, Arizona adopted an “aggressive panhandling law” after a federal court struck down the previous law banning all panhandling in 2013. In April, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed into law banning “aggressive panhandling.” A 2014 National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty study found that 24 percent of cities in the United States had bans on begging in public and 76 percent banned begging in certain public places, increases of 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively, since 2011.
While some believe that panhandlers don’t really need the money, a 2013 survey of panhandlers in San Francisco revealed that 94 percent of panhandlers used the money they received from begging to purchase food, not drugs and alcohol.
Recently, however, courts are overturning panhandling laws, thanks in part to the 2015 Supreme Court case Reed v. Town of Gilbert. The Court ruled that a law that placed a time limit on signs giving directions to church services was unconstitutional because it restricted speech based on content. This ruling has been interpreted as also protecting panhandlers’ free speech.
Earlier this year, a federal judge declared the aggressive panhandling law in Grand Junction, Colorado unconstitutional for limiting free speech. The law prohibited panhandling after dark and in certain areas of the city. Panhandling bans have also been overturned in cities such as Worcester and Lowell, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine.
Cities are also starting to abandon the practice. Akron, Ohio, repealed its panhandling law in May a week after the ACLU of Ohio sued the city on the basis of the first amendment, although a city official says “it isn’t a dead issue.” Earlier this year, three Rhode Island cities stopped enforcing their aggressive panhandling laws after they received letters from the ACLU of Rhode Island threatening a lawsuit.
Rachel Cain is an intern at ThinkProgress.