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ACLU sues Grand Rapids over panhandling law | News

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ACLU sues Grand Rapids over panhandling law
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GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) - The ACLU says it plans to sue Grand Rapids and its police department for arresting panhandlers, saying authorities are enforcing a state law that it says is unconstitutional.

The law allows police to arrest panhandlers -- people who beg for money. The ACLU says the city is targeting low-income and homeless people, and taking away their freedom of speech. But the police say some of the panhandlers are too aggressive and scaring the public.

Miriam Aukerman, the ACLU'S attorney says, "It's not a crime to ask for help, not a crime to need assistance, or be unemployed. But that's what's happened here. People are being jailed and prosecuted for needing assistance." 

Under Michigan law, panhandling is illegal. Aukerman calls that unconstitutional. She says since 2008 police have arrested nearly 400 people. One person was holding a sign asking for work.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, and that includes most vulnerable people in our society," she says. "I feel this law is being used to target the most vulnerable people in our community."

We took Aukerman's concerns to the city. We asked Police Chief Kevin Belk about the arrests and he says the department is not against the homeless -- only aggressive behavior.

"We do get a lot of complaints from the public," says Belk. "Lots of times people are very aggressive or intoxicated. It does put people put people in fear, so it's something we feel we need to address." 

On WZZM 13's Facebook page, most people commenting on the panhandling say lending a helping hand is the right thing to do. But Don Tack, director of the Servants Center and a homeless advocate, stands behind the state law that bans panhandling.

"In our experience of working with the homeless for over 20 years, the vast majority of the money collected for panhandling goes for the use of alcohol,"  says Tack.

Ultimately this debate will be solved in court -- when a judge has the final say.

The ACLU is also suing Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette over the state law.

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