Panhandling is protected speech under the First Amendment. Nevertheless, many cities have attempted to ban or restrict panhandling as part of widespread efforts to criminalize homelessness. Until 2015, the City of Fort Collins had an unusually restrictive anti-panhandling ordinance. The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit against this unconstitutional ordinance and the equally unconstitutional manner in which it was being enforced, and the City responded by amending the ordinance and agreeing to change their enforcement practices. Unfortunately, the unconstitutional ordinance that originated here in Fort Collins served as a model for other communities, which have enacted and are enforcing similar ordinances.
The First Amendment protects the right of all people, regardless of economic circumstances or social status, to make peaceful, non-threatening requests for charity. For many people who panhandle, this is their only source of income. The criminalization of homelessness includes the enactment and enforcement of laws that make it illegal to conduct life-sustaining activities – such as sleeping, resting, eating, eliminating, or asking for help – in public spaces. These policies seek to make homelessness less visible, while doing nothing to reduce the number of people who are experiencing homelessness. These policies are ineffective, inhumane, and unconscionable.
The Fort Collins Homeless Coalition worked with the ACLU of Colorado to help find people who had been targeted by the unconstitutional ordinance and enforcement efforts. On February 10, 2015, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Fort Collins, alleging that the City’s panhandling ban violated the US Constitution.
The challenged ordinance restricted panhandling in at least eleven different circumstances, including prohibiting solicitation in the evening or within 100 feet of a bus stop, and even prohibited soliciting people with disabilities or people over the age of 60, who were defined as “at risk.” Further, Fort Collins police were enforcing the ordinance as though it was a comprehensive ban on all forms of solicitation, routinely harassing or issuing tickets to people who were engaged in peaceful solicitation and not violating the ordinance at all.
On February 27, 2015, the Fort Collins City Council held an emergency session to modify the panhandling ordinance, removing all of the challenged portions. In March, the City settled with the ACLU and agreed to agreed to the entry of a federal court order forbidding police and city officials from interfering with the free speech rights of persons who panhandle by merely displaying a sign that invites charity. The City also agreed to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs, and to provide the ACLU with 45 days advance notice of any future proposals to reinstate or revise the repealed provisions of the ordinance.
Several of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are members of the Fort Collins Homeless Coalition, and remain proud of the role they played in helping restore justice to our community.
FCHC continues to work with the ACLU to monitor and identify other violations of constitutional and civil rights here in Fort Collins. If you experience harassment from police regarding peaceful solicition, please contact the ACLU of Colorado at (303) 777-5482.
What Does Ticketing Data Tell Us?
Each year, FCHC collects publicly available data from the Fort Collins Police Services about how many tickets are being given under several municipal ordinances. Information on ticketing trends, as well as the text of the panhandling ordinance, can be found in the following pdf:
Please note: ticketing data does not tell us how often people are contacted by police under an ordinance, instructed to change their behavior (even if they were not behaving illegally), or otherwise pushed out of public spaces, without a ticket being written. While police often regard contact as a neutral/benign action, people being contacted do not always experience it this way. In fact, being repeatedly singled out for police attention, contact, questioning, and control is often intimidating, oppressive, marginalizing, and can make a person less likely to trust the police or report concerning/dangerous/criminal behavior to them.