Federal Judge: Michigan Panhandling Law Violates Constitution

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A sign in hand or walking the streets hoping to get spare change is a scene all too familiar for former panhander Carl Hullett.

"On good days I was making upwards of $300, $400 a day and in just a matter of hours," Hullett said

Hullet says he never got in trouble for doing it, despite a Michigan statute that makes panhandling in public places a criminal misdemeanor offense.

Just last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit against Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and the City of Grand Rapids on behalf of two Grand Rapids men arrested for begging in public. On Friday, a federal judge ruled the state's panhandling law violates the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

"It turned out I think the way we thought it might turn out and I'm glad we held our powder dry," said Lansing City Attorney Brig Smith.

Lansing has its own anti-begging ordinance, but Smith says enforcement was never a priority. The city wanted to wait and see how the lawsuit played out.

"We've been I think fairly careful in the City of Lansing not to go as far as some other cities might have gone," Smith said.

Instead of anti-begging, Lansing has turned to its "obstruction of traffic" ordinance. Exactly as it sounds, police can stop public begging if the panhandler is obstructing traffic.

"The obstruction ordinance is different than the begging ordinance I think legally because it targets not content of speech, or viewpoint of speech or even speech at all, but conduct that has nothing to do with speech," Smith said.

As for Hullett, he's no longer on the streets, but still believes that panhandling should be protected speech.

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