Judge ices downtown zone, 20-foot setback
Panhandlers can ply their trade without change after a Federal District Court judge in Denver issued a preliminary injunction Dec. 18 against a city ordinance that includes a downtown no-solicitation zone and a city-wide 20-foot setback for solicitors near doorways
A trial to determine a final ruling remains possible, but no date has been scheduled.
Both the setback and the zone - which would have the effect of banning even passive panhandling in a 12-block downtown area - are part of Ordinance 12-100.
Colorado Springs City Council approved the law Nov. 27 after hearing numerous complaints from downtown merchants that a profusion of panhandlers was discouraging people from shopping in that area.
The legal appeal was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed the law denied freedom of speech.
Before council's action, City Attorney Chris Melcher, the ordinance author, had repeatedly assured the body that the way he wrote it should pass legal muster because it was based on an ordinance that has survived a legal challenge in Florida.
“We are disappointed in the court's ruling but respect the process,” he said in a prepared statement. “We will carefully review the written ruling when it is issued, likely next week.” Of the free-speech issue, Melcher said, “We continue to believe that the ordinance is constitutional and an appropriate effort by the city to protect our downtown merchants and residents, our visitors, families and our community.”
Ordinance 12-100 also increased to 20 feet the former distance of 6 feet for soliciting outside doorways. This change has been perceived by Westside leaders as a way to deny panhandlers in areas with close-together doorways, such as Old Colorado City.
Councilmember Lisa Czelatdko, who had pushed for that increase, said she has already asked the city attorney about it and other aspects of 12-100 that do not relate to the downtown zone. She said Melcher has told her that the written ruling may answer those questions as well.
In meetings leading up to Nov. 27, the strategy Melcher had defined for council was to ban all types of solicitation (not just panhandling) in the downtown zone, which would theoretically armor the city against legal challenges of bias. But the ACLU turned that argument against the city by naming a variety of denied solicitors in the lawsuit - a street musician, newspaper hawkers, several organizations and a disabled man who “parks his wheelchair on a sidewalk corner while asking politely for spare change,” a press release states.
“We are relieved the court agreed that the First Amendment does not allow Colorado Springs to outlaw our clients' peaceful, non-threatening communications,” said Mark Silverstein of the ACLU.
The ACLU did not challenge the other Nov. 27 city ordinance. That law, 12-101, adds federal highways to existing code that prohibits soliciting on interstates or at their accesses. 12-101 had been seen as a way to curb panhandling on West Colorado Avenue west of 31st Street (US Business 24), but the city has since learned that the Federal Highway Administration does not recognize that as an official federal highway.
Westside Pioneer article