Twp. ordinance could prohibit street soliciting

FLINT TWP. — Charitable organizations that collect funds from motorists may be curbed by a proposed panhandling ordinance being considered by the township board.

The proposed amendment to the begging and soliciting ordinance passed first reading in a 6-1 vote by the township board at its meeting this week and will come up for second reading and possible adoption at the July 21 meeting.

The remedy responds to ongoing complaints about a growing number of beggars seen on highly visible street corners throughout the township. Police stopped arresting them last year after a warning by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that it could result in a law suit.

That warming stemmed from a U.S. District Court ruling in 2012 that peaceful panhandling is a form of free speech no different from other charitable groups asking for donations on public streets.

Since then, the numbers of street corner beggars has increased and many municipalities have been seeking a way to place some restrictions on them.

Flint Township’s proposed ordinance amendment is based on one passed in the city of Kentwood in Kent County that withstood a court challenge.

In April 2013, a Kent County Circuit Judge ruled that the ordinance “applies to all solicitation, regardless of the message or the recipient, and it is reasonable and necessary manner of regulating traffic for the safety of motor vehicle operators, passengers and pedestrians.”

The ordinance sets forth eight unlawful means of soliciting including “from any operator of a motor vehicle that is in traffic on a public street (with provisions).

Unfortunately it also applies to legitimate charitable groups.

Clerk Kim Courts, who cast the sole no vote at first reading, mentioned the Old Newsboys annual street fundraising drive to provide Christmas gifts for needy children. “If we go forward, this means the Old Newsboys, we would have to say no. I could not do that.” Courts said. “I think it is wrong to stop that. It’s for the kids for the holiday.” Township Supervisor Miller said the Old Newsboys does not currently seek township permission. It was also suggested that such groups can still conduct fund drives from parking lots. The proposed ordinance also cites other prohibited places such as within 15 feet of a bus stop, pay phone, or ATM machine and on private property without the owner’s permission. Police George Sippert said he spoke to the Kentwood Police Chief who said they were challenged by the ACLU when the ordinance was enforced two years ago. The key to winning the court case was that the law has to be enforced across the board, no matter the charity. “We can’t pick on one group and not the other,’‘ Chief Sippert said. “If adopted, we will enforce it across the board for everybody.” Chief Sippert said his officers stopped arresting street corner beggars nearly a year ago on the advice of township attorney Peter Goodstein, who also researched and brought to the board the proposed ordinance with court case documentation. Chief Sippert said it is a hot topic in many other communities. “This seems to be a way that we can address the issue,’’ he said of the proposed ordinance amendment.

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