August 12, 2015

After a recent federal court ruling, Madison’s 2012 law that bans panhandling around Capitol Square and State Street is unconstitutional and should be immediately repealed, the ACLU of Wisconsin says.

The federal court of appeals in Chicago last week said a panhandling law in Springfield, Illinois, can’t discriminate based on the content of a speaker’s words, such as asking for money, ACLU of Wisconsin senior staff attorney Karyn Rotker said. “That’s a violation of the First Amendment,” she said.

The ACLU wrote to the city on Tuesday asking that Madison stop enforcing its law.

Mayor Paul Soglin referred the letter to the city attorney’s office, which is reviewing it as well as the relevant federal court case, mayoral aide Katie Crawley said.

“We hope the city will take care of this properly,” Rotker said, adding that the ACLU will monitor the situation and consider all options.

Rotker said she is unaware of other Wisconsin municipalities that have a law like Madison’s.

Ald. Mike Verveer, 4th District, who has sponsored panhandling rules in response to citizen and business complaints, said he’ll be disappointed if the law must be rolled back and hopes the city will keep the strongest rules possible under current case law.

The 2012 law didn’t resolve all problems but “made a difference,” he said.

“Panhandling continues to be a top quality-of-life issue for people Downtown,” Verveer said.

Before 2012, the city banned aggressive and menacing panhandling citywide, and also had a citywide prohibition of panhandling within 50 feet of an ATM, 25 feet from a sidewalk cafe or intersection, and certain distances from commercial buildings.

In August 2012, the City Council kept the ban on aggressive and menacing panhandling but made changes, including the ban on panhandling anywhere in the Central Business District — essentially Capitol Square and State Street and one block in either direction. It also aligned the citywide ban near ATMs, sidewalk cafes, and intersections to 25 feet, added a ban within 25 feet of establishments with an alcohol license, and dropped the ban from commercial buildings.

The changes were made to close loopholes in the law that allowed near constant panhandling in some specific areas on State Street, where people who weren’t homeless had even established a racket by enforcing who could panhandle in certain spots, Verveer said.

In the letter to city officials Tuesday, the ACLU of Wisconsin said the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Aug. 7 invalidated a similar panhandling law covering a downtown historic district in Springfield and makes it clear Madison’s law is unconstitutional.

“Clearly, Madison may not enforce this unconstitutional ordinance, must cease seeking to enforce any tickets or fines issued based on it, and must re-train its police officers to ensure they are no longer seeking to enforce this ordinance,” she wrote.

The ACLU has not challenged provisions of law that prohibit aggressive or menacing panhandling, Rotker said.


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