Michigan bill targets ‘aggressive’ panhandling

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan would crack down on “aggressive solicitation” under bills headed to the full House for consideration three years after a federal court struck down a broader state anti-begging law as an unconstitutional violation of free speech rights.

The legislation, approved Tuesday by the Republican-led House Criminal Justice Committee in a 5-3 party line vote, could lead to civil fines of up to $100 for panhandlers who continue to beg from a person who has said they do not want to be solicited.

The proposal is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which contested the original state law.

Panhandlers also could be fined for making physical contact with another person without their consent, approaching or following a person in a manner intended to cause bodily harm or intentionally obstructing the safe or free passage of a person being solicited.

“If you’re getting in and out of your car, and they come right up to you — I’ve talked to people who find that intimidating,” sponsoring Rep. Mike McCready, R-Bloomfield Hills, said in committee testimony. “And I think that’s where it crosses the line from a personal request to an intimidating request.”

The Aggressive Solicitation Prohibition Act also would make clear that local governments can adopt and enforce their own anti-panhandling ordinances.

Michigan communities have struggled with panhandling regulations since 2013, when the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state’s anti-begging law on First Amendment grounds.

The law criminalized panhandling by treating anyone “found begging in a public place” as a disorderly person. Violators were subject to up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.

The ACLU of Michigan challenged the law on behalf of two homeless adults who were arrested in Grand Rapids, one for holding up a sign that read “Need Job, God Bless” while standing between a sidewalk and street.

Attorney General Bill Schuette defended the law, arguing the state was attempting to prevent fraud committed by beggars who are not homeless or destitute and do not use donations to meet their basic needs.

The federal court agreed that Michigan has a substantial interest in preventing fraud, but the three-judge panel said the state could address fraud by crafting a more narrowly tailored law.

The new proposal is more specific than the old law but remains problematic because it targets poor people for behaviors that others could engage in, said ACLU legislative liaison Shelli Weisberg.

“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,” she said.

McCready said panhandlers in his district, which includes Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, regularly hold signs up along Woodward Avenue and seek donations from motorists.

Panhandlers have “every right” to beg on public property, McCready said, but it becomes an issue when they approach people in areas like supermarket parking lots.

“We don’t want to harm these people or get in their way,” he said. “What we’re saying is they have a right to stand there, but they can’t go up and ask people for money in a way they find intimidating. And if they do, we’re asking people to call the police right away and report it.”

Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, motioned to move the main bill out of committee after telling colleauges his wife was intimidated by a panhandler outside a grocery store.

“The person came up and leaned into the car, didn’t touch her, but it was very aggressive,” Howell said. “I think it’s a problem in our suburban and urban areas.”

Rep. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, questioned bill language seeking to prohibit panhandlers from following a person in a manner that is intended to cause bodily harm, suggesting the description is vague and undefined.

“That just seems really subjective to me,” Chang said after Tuesday’s hearing. “Someone walking a certain way might be seen as aggressive to one person but not aggressive to another person. I just think there’s all types of implications, potentially along racial lines.”

Earlier versions of the legislation also would have prohibited solicitation within 15 feet of a bank or automated teller machine without permission.

Weisberg said the updated version advanced Tuesday was an improvement but criticized it as “a blanket extra infraction on people who are poor and constitutionally allowed to beg for money on the streets.”

Many of the aggressive behaviors outlined in the main bill could be prosecuted under existing statutes, she said, and the proposed fines raised additional concerns.

“Poor people are going to be charged with a $100 fine, which I guess unless they’re allowed to panhandle, they’re not able to pay,” she said. “…Because it’s a civil infraction, they won’t have the ability to have a defense if they can’t afford a lawyer and they won’t be able to challenge this type of offense.”


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