LAS VEGAS — Officials in one Colorado city want to put their collective foot down on a major public headache: panhandling.
Colorado Springs is poised to outlaw solicitations for cash in a 12-square-block area of downtown. The City Council last week gave preliminary approval to an ordinance to outlaw various forms of solicitation, and the measure is expected to receive final approval Nov. 27.
But Colorado Springs may be headed into some rough legal waters.
Cities large and small nationwide have resorted to the citation book to deal with the issue of homeless people who flag pedestrians and drivers with imploring — and sometimes humorous — signs, or sometimes with just an extended hand.
But in a growing number of cases, civil rights groups — and the panhandlers themselves — have sued on First Amendment grounds.
And some courts appear to be listening.
In Utah this month, the city of American Fork agreed not to enforce its anti-panhandling law after a homeless man who had been cited several times for holding a sign on public sidewalks filed a federal lawsuit claiming the rule selectively barred free speech.
A civil liberties foundation sued American Fork in October on behalf of Steve Ray Evans, claiming the law “discriminates among types of speech" and “depends solely on a person expressing the ‘wrong’ words."
“In order to bring in enough money to survive, Evans sometimes engages in panhandling," the court documents stated. “He has found holding a sign to be an effective means of communicating with people. He does not approach or speak to people unless invited to do so."
After Evans’ lawsuit, Salt Lake City decided to stop enforcing a state statute that makes it illegal to “sit, stand or loiter on or near a roadway" in order to solicit a ride, money, employment or other business. A federal judge later ruled the law was unconstitutional.
A recent report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found a 7 percent rise nationwide between 2009 and 2011 in the number of communities that passed anti-panhandling laws. The study included 188 cities.
Colorado Springs officials expanded a no-soliciting zone from six feet to 20 feet from building entrances downtown and banned soliciting along state highways.
But American Civil Liberties Union representatives in Colorado say they have seen the Colorado Springs statute and warn that they believe it’s illegal.
“One obvious flaw is that it violates the First Amendment principal that government can’t choose certain speech it likes while forbidding speech it doesn’t like," Mark Silverstein, the ACLU’s legal director in Colorado, said.
Under the Colorado Springs law, Silverstein said, a person can stand on a downtown street with a sign that reads “Re-elect the mayor" but not one that solicits for breast cancer research. As written, the law also prohibits a Salvation Army Santa from ringing a bell for donations or a street musician playing with an open guitar case.
“They want to stop aggressive panhandling, but the law strikes down passive, non-threatening, polite panhandling and every other variety of speech," he said.
Colorado Springs City Attorney Chris Melcher said the city has studied the issue for nearly eight years. In recent months, officials have held five public hearings, consulted hundreds of people, and decided that the future of Colorado Springs’ downtown depended on a new get-tough law.