It's official: Battle Creek passes panhandling, loitering laws

BATTLE CREEK, MICH. - Amid public debate over unwanted behavior and constitutional rights, Battle Creek officials have passed a pair of ordinances aimed to clamp down on panhandling and loitering throughout the city.

City commissioners in a split vote Tuesday night adopted the the proposals, which will take effect in 10 days. They voted the same way they did last month when considering whether to introduce the ordinances: Mayor Dave Walters, Vice Mayor Susan Baldwin and commissioners Mark Behnke, Deb Owens and Mike Sherzer were in support, while commissioners Kaytee Faris, Kate Flores and Andy Helmboldt dissented.

Commissioner Lynn Ward Gray, who voted against introducing the ordinances, was absent Tuesday.

In the works is a possible street outreach task force, first proposed by Flores. Commissioners were scheduled to vote on the resolution Tuesday, but all but Faris voted to postpone to allow for more time to discuss specific details related to the committee.

The committee would include representatives from city government, social service organizations and the homeless and would provide recommendations within nine months to commissioners regarding panhandling issues.

Under the ordinances, activities such as remaining "idly" within 25 feet of an intersection without a license or soliciting money from anyone near building entrances, restrooms, ATMs or in line are prohibited. Panhandling is not allowed between sunset and sunrise on public property without an official license or permit.

Also prohibited is accosting, described in the ordinance as "approaching another person in a way that would cause a reasonable person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed or molested." So is "forcing oneself upon another," such as continuing to ask for money after being turned down.

Violations would be considered civil infractions and could result in fines. The ordinances are supported by the Battle Creek Police Department and were recommended for approval by City Manager Rebecca Fleury's office.

Adoption of the ordinance may not signal the end of the discussion. Federal court rulings have found bans on peaceful begging unconstitutional, and in 2012 the Battle Creek City Commission repealed its own ordinance after a U.S. District Court judge in Grand Rapids ruled a state law against panhandling was unconstitutional.

The most recent ordinance proposals caught the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which sent a letter to to city officials in July arguing the proposals "would not survive constitutional scrutiny." Battle Creek's attorneys have said its concerns have been addressed.

Deputy City Attorney Sunny Sahu, who has been involved in drafting the ordinances, said he believes the ordinances are "entirely constitutional." He said he also has done litigation for the ACLU himself.

The ACLU also has a history of challenging similar municipal laws, often winning. In October 2015, a panhandling ordinance in Grand Junction, Colo., was tossed after a federal district court judge ruled it unconstitutional. Like Battle Creek, the ACLU's Colorado chapter sent a letter as city officials began drafting their ordinance. The group filed suit against Grand Junction immediately after the law was passed, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

An October 2015 article by the newspaper reported that Grand Junction had spent at least $115,000 to defend the cases. Some of the costs could have been covered by the city's insurance company after hitting $150,000, but officials at the time estimated it was possible the total bill could exceed $300,000.

Some 60 people attended the commission meeting Tuesday night, some of whom held cardboard signs with messages opposing the ordinances.

"Your job as elected leaders, from what I understand, is to do what's best for our community," Battle Creek resident Brian Steele told commissioners Tuesday. "And what is best for our community to bring us all together, all people, and to not give into people's fear. When people are afraid, that's fine. Let's talk about it. Let's figure out what the fear actually is and you may discover just maybe that the fear was not a real thing to begin with."

Walt Whitfield said he and his children live in the downtown area and have regularly been approached by panhandlers. While they seem to suffer from mental health issues and have made him uncomfortable, Whitfield said he opposed the ordinances.

"You're basically saying you have a right to walk around in a free society and not be talked to," he said.

Battle Creek resident Joel Fulton said law enforcement should have the tools to allow them to do their job.

"But limiting free speech? Basing public policy on how someone feels?" he said. "That's awfully vague."

Still, several public commenters spoke out in favor of the ordinances, saying they have felt threatened at times and that panhandlers should take advantage of available resources from social services organizations.

Bill Schroer, who owns a downtown commercial building at Michigan and Capital avenues, said he has received complaints from female employees who have been approached by panhandlers.

Schroer said the issue is not about free speech.

"This is about criminals who are attempting to coerce people into giving them money so they can go and do what they want with it," he said.

Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker said the officers' work with the homeless often goes unmentioned. The ordinances, however, would help police make contact with unfamiliar panhandlers — most of the time does not include citations, he said.

"No one knows more than our officers that a ticket does not address the issue," Blocker said.

(2016 © Battle Creek Enquirer)


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