Local Government Law Bulletin December 10, 2013

Local Panhandling Ordinances Should Be Reviewed in Light of First Amendment Case

Since before the Great Depression, a person “found begging in a public place” in Michigan has been subject to criminal misdemeanor charges for disorderly conduct. MCL 750.167(1)(h). Many local units of governments also have longstanding disorderly conduct ordinances that mirror this provision of Michigan law. However, in the case of Speet v. Schuette, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Michigan’s so-called “anti-begging” statute is facially overbroad and an unconstitutional burden on a substantial amount of conduct and speech that the First Amendment protects.

In ruling that Michigan’s anti-begging statute is unconstitutional, the Sixth Circuit relied on a long line of cases protecting the solicitation of charitable contributions to organizations under the First Amendment, and found that begging is a form of solicitation that the First Amendment also protects. The Sixth Circuit admonished that “[t]o hold otherwise would mean that an individual’s plight is worthy of less protection in the eyes of the law than the interests addressed by an organized group.” The Sixth Circuit’s ruling is applicable to disorderly conduct ordinances of local units of government that contain anti-begging provisions. If such local provisions mirror the Michigan anti-begging statute, or are similarly overbroad, citations issued for violating the anti-begging provisions may be challenged as unconstitutional.

The holding in Speet v. Schuette does not mean, however, that local units of government are forbidden from regulating panhandling. Despite its ruling, the Sixth Circuit noted that Michigan may regulate begging with carefully crafted and reasonable regulations. Permissible regulations could include certain restrictions on the time, place, or manner in which individuals can lawfully solicit money, or could address fraudulent panhandling. Please contact one of our municipal attorneys to review your disorderly conduct ordinance to determine if it is constitutional and to recommend revisions that comply with Speet v. Schuette.

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