Criminalizing begging in Michigan unconstitutional, court rules Washington— A federal appeals court has ruled Michigan’s Depression-era law that criminalizes begging is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. The three-judge panel of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a lower court decision that said Grand Rapids police were wrong to arrest two homeless men in 2011 for asking for change. The court said between 2008 and 2011, there were 409 reports of incidents where police enforced this anti-begging ordinance, and 399 people were arrested or issued tickets for begging in Grand Rapids. Of those, 211 were sentenced to jail terms, the panel said. “Michigan’s interest in preventing fraud can be better served by a statute that, instead of directly prohibiting begging, is more narrowly tailored to the specific conduct, such as fraud, that Michigan seeks to prohibit,” Judge Boyce Martin, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter who reportedly is retiring at week’s end, wrote in an opinion joined by judges Jeffrey Sutton and John R. Adams, both appointees of President George W. Bush. Two of those arrested sued in federal court: James Speet and Ernest Sims, two homeless adults. In January 2011, Speet was arrested for begging in Grand Rapids. He was holding a sign saying: “Cold and Hungry, God Bless.” The police gave Speet an appearance ticket, and he pleaded guilty to the charge. Unable to pay the $198 fine, Speet spent four days in jail. Then in June 2011, Speet was holding a sign that said, “Need Job, God Bless,” while standing between a sidewalk and a street in Grand Rapids. The city police again arrested him for begging. After Speet secured pro bono counsel, the prosecution dismissed the begging charge. Michigan has barred begging since 1929. The court said the Michigan law “simply bans an entire category of activity that the First Amendment protects.” On July 4, 2011, Sims sought money for bus fare and asked a person on the street: “Can you spare a little change?” A Grand Rapids police officer witnessed the conversation and immediately arrested him. “After Sims, a veteran, requested that he not be taken to jail because it was the Fourth of July, the officer agreed to give him an appearance ticket. Later, Sims appeared without counsel in court on the begging charge. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine of $100,” the court said. Speet and Sims sued Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the City of Grand Rapids and several of the city’s police officers. Schuette argued the Michigan law didn’t violate the First Amendment rights of the men arrested. A spokeswoman for Schuette said Wednesday the ruling is under review by the Attorney General’s office. A Grand Rapids city attorney who defended the city was not immediately available for comment. The ruling written by Martin, whom legal website FindLaw calls “the court’s vociferous liberal lion,” noted the U.S. Supreme Court has not directly decided the question of whether the First Amendment protects soliciting alms when done by individuals, but it has held repeatedly the First Amendment protects charitable solicitations by organizations. Three other appeals courts have upheld the right of citizens to beg for money.