UPDATE: City hammers the poor, ACLU alleges

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Here's a scene that depicts what's driving the city's don't sit-don't lie ordinance. - COURTESY CITY OF COLORADO SPRINGS
  • Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
  • Here's a scene that depicts what's driving the city's don't sit-don't lie ordinance.

UPDATE:

The city issued the following statement in response to the ACLU's letter:

The City received the ACLU’s letter late yesterday afternoon. Though we have no knowledge of improper application of the City’s solicitation ordinances, the City believes it is important to investigate the assertions made by the ACLU carefully and, if warranted, take appropriate action. Consequently, City staff is developing a work plan to gather information and determine the facts. The City will be responding to the letter, in due course, as this effort proceeds.

———————————ORIGINAL POST TUESDAY, SEPT. 15, 2015, 1:31 P.M.————————————————-

On Tuesday, the ACLU of Colorado accused the Colorado Springs Police Department, City Attorney's Office and Municipal Court of "illegally enforcing the City’s panhandling laws against impoverished people who have not violated those laws."

The result is poor people are being fined and jailed for up to 90 days "under circumstances that cannot be legally or morally justified,” the ACLU says in a letter to the city, which stops short of threatening legal action:
See related PDF ACLU9_14_15.pdf
In the letter, the ACLU cites a ruling in a Grand Junction panhandling case. Here's what the judge had to say about panhandling's message:
Often, a request for money conveys conditions of poverty, homelessness, and unemployment, as well as a lack of access to medical care, reentry services for persons convicted of crimes, and mental health support. The City’s attempt to regulate this message is an attempt to restrain the expression of conditions of poverty to other citizens.
From the ACLU news release:
The City’s two panhandling ordinances specifically exempt individuals who engage in passive solicitation—meaning that people who merely display a sign inviting charity do not violate the ordinances. Nevertheless, an ACLU investigation found that all three major arms of the Colorado Springs municipal justice system – police, prosecutors, and judges — are routinely enforcing the ordinances against people who engage in passive solicitation.

“The police, prosecutors, and the municipal court are all involved in citing, prosecuting, and sentencing poor persons, sometimes to jail, for crimes they did not commit,” said ACLU Staff Attorney Rebecca Wallace. “These astounding extra-legal exercises of power strongly suggest that none of these offices are respecting the limits of their legal authority, at least when it comes to poor and homeless people.”

There are two sections of the Colorado Springs Municipal Code, Section 9.2.111 and Section 10.18.112, which address solicitation. The definition of “soliciting,” which applies to both sections, states that “soliciting does not include passively standing or sitting with a sign or other indication that one is seeking donations.”

The ACLU of Colorado reviewed all citations since January 2013 for violations of Section 9.2.111 and found that more than one-third were issued to a person who was displaying a sign inviting charity. Over that same period, police issued 892 citations for violation of Section 10.18.112. The ACLU reviewed two dozen of those citations and found that more [than] 90 percent were illegally issued to people who engaged in passive solicitation and did not violate the law.

Rather than dismiss the unlawfully-issued citations, the City Attorney’s Office regularly prosecuted the cases, usually against poor or homeless defendants who had no attorney present. Colorado Springs Municipal Court judges then entered convictions, imposing fines and, in some cases, jail sentences, even though the defendants had not violated the law. In one particularly alarming case, a municipal court judge sentenced a 58-year-old homeless man to 90 days in jail for soliciting with a sign.

In today’s letter, the ACLU of Colorado demands that Colorado Springs immediately stop illegal enforcement of the solicitation laws, dismiss pending prosecutions of individuals charged with passive solicitation, and initiate procedures to vacate any sentences that are based on convictions for conduct that does not violate the ordinances.

The ACLU’s letter comes at a time when the Colorado Springs City Council is considering an ordinance that would make it a crime, punishable by up to six months in jail, to sit on the planters or the sidewalks downtown.

“Colorado Springs is already wielding its enforcement powers to target poor and homeless persons for extra-legal, discriminatory, and fundamentally unfair treatment,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “We urge the City to rethink how its criminal justice system interacts with residents who are experiencing poverty. Instead of adopting yet another measure that targets the poor, the City needs to get its house—and its justice system—in order.”

In 2012, the ACLU challenged a Colorado Springs ordinance that attempted to create a “Downtown No Solicitation Zone.” After the ACLU obtained a preliminary injunction, the City repealed the ordinance and paid the ACLU $110,000 in attorney’s fees.

Resources:
Read the ACLU Letter to Colorado Springs Regarding Illegal Enforcement of Panhandling Laws: http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-09-14-Massey-ACLU2.pdf

Read ACLU Statement on the Proposed “Sit-Lie” Ordinance in Colorado Springs:
http://aclu-co.org/aclu-of-colorado-statement-on-the-proposed-sit-lie-ordinance-in-colorado-springs/

Visit the ACLU of Colorado Criminalization of Homelessness Campaign Page:
http://aclu-co.org/campaigns/criminalization-homelessness/
Regarding the case of the homeless man, 58, here's more detail, from the ACLU's letter:
In another particularly disturbing case, the police cited a 58-year-old homeless man for soliciting with a sign. The municipal court judge accepted the defendant’s guilty plea and imposed a staggeringly-severe sentence of 90 days in jail.6 Setting aside the irrationality and cruelty of such a grave punishment for displaying a sign inviting charity, this exercise of the court’s most extreme enforcement power – incarceration – was imposed for conduct
that does not violate the City’s ordinances.

As referenced  by the ACLU, the city's next public meeting about the proposed "sit-lie" ordinance for downtown will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday at City Auditorium  6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Westside Community Center at 1628 West Bijou. The city bills the meeting on the City Council's calendar as pertaining to "pedestrian safety/economic vitality."

We've asked the city for a comment on the letter and will update if and when we hear something.


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