GRAND RAPIDS (WWJ/AP) – Two men who successfully fought the state’s panhandling law after being arrested in Grand Rapids in 2011 will each get $6,500 as part of a $48,000 settlement with the city.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented James Speet and Ernest Sims, gets the remaining $35,000 toward attorney fees, according to the Grand Rapids Press.
In 2012, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that the law banning panhandling in public places violated First Amendment protections for free speech and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The decision was upheld by a federal appeals panel in August.
City attorney Catherine Mish confirmed terms of the recently approved settlement. She called it a difficult case, partially because the city had to defend a law it didn’t put on the books.
In their case, attorneys said Speet and Sims were repeatedly arrested or ticketed by police for violating the state’s blanket ban on begging in public.
Speet was arrested for begging in Grand Rapids in Jan. 2011, while holding a sign that said: “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 Grand Rapids police again arrested him for begging. After Speet secured pro bono counsel, the prosecution dismissed the begging charge.
Sims’ case is similar. On July 4, 2011, Sims needed money for bus fare and asked a person on the street: “Can you spare a little change?” A Grand Rapids police officer witnessed Sims asking for change 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.
Speet and Sims aren’t alone — Grand Rapids enforced the panhandling ban 399 times between Jan. 2008 and May 2011, the ACLU said.
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