ACLU says sit ban should go

| February 13, 2014

The Montana ACLU warned the Missoula City Council on Feb. 10 that suggestions proposed by Mayor John Engen to curb downtown loitering and panhandling could still leave the city on shaky legal ground.

"It goes beyond this council's police powers to ban benign acts," ACLU staff attorney Anna Conley told council during its most recent debate about changes to the city's anti-solicitation and pedestrian interference ordinances.

In December, council voted 7-3 to prohibit sitting, sleeping and lying on a downtown sidewalk between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., and to prohibit soliciting money in many areas of the city's urban core. The decision sought to quell concern from business owners who have repeatedly called upon council to curb aggressive and unsavory behavior downtown.

Council's December vote was a relief to shopkeepers, but it disturbed those who felt lawmakers were in effect criminalizing homelessness. Weeks after council cast the vote—one of two required to make the amendments law—a federal judge tilted the debate when he found similar prohibitions passed in Boise violated constitutional free speech protections.

The Boise lawsuit prompted Engen to address potential legal pitfalls in Missoula's ordinances. The mayor unveiled his recommended changes this week.

Engen suggested scrapping an existing after-dark solicitation ban and a citywide prohibition against loitering near footbridges and pedestrian tunnels. He also recommended shrinking a no-panhandling buffer area from 20 feet around downtown doorways, as the December ordinance stated, to 10 feet around public entrances to commercial buildings.

Engen said he believes his amendments will withstand judicial scrutiny. The ACLU isn't so sure. Conley argued that Engen's draft still has significant problems, including the prohibition against sitting on downtown sidewalks between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. Tack that onto the city's existing ban on using signs to solicit money in some areas, and Conley said the ordinances still infringe on free speech.

"There is no safety or other justification for banning silently holding a sign in a non-aggressive and non-intrusive way," Conley said.

Councilman Jason Wiener agreed. Aiming to remedy what he sees as an overstep, he proposed striking the sit ban entirely. He also asked his council colleagues to eliminate language in Missoula's existing statutes that make it unlawful to use a sign to solicit for money.

Council sent the ordinances back to committee for further tweaking. They are slated for another debate on Feb. 26.

Comments (3)

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Let’s see the definition of Sidewalk from the good old Webster book or words.

side•walk noun \ˈsīd-ˌwȯk\ : a usually concrete path along the side of a street for people to walk on.

I don’t see anything that states it’s for sleeping on or lying down on or can be used to panhandle from. Nope, not there! So this article confuses me. Why are we wasting our time trying to make some people happy when all the city council has to do is just make it illegal to do this? How is this a violation of anyone’s rights?

How about charging a fee to panhandle from a location that you can list on a form when you apply? That way anyone that wants to panhandle will have a license to do so for that day and the city has the right to reject the location if it creates a hazard or disrupts a tax paying business? This way there is no violation of speech if in fact this article is saying it’s a violation of free speech to keep someone from holding a sign panhandling for money.

I suppose what I’m saying is that this is stupid all the way around. I know I don’t want to go downtown and smell the fresh piss on the sidewalk or have to step over a drunk sleeping on the sidewalk or worse. Who in there right mind would want that? For those of you that think this is ok I ask you this. Which one of these homeless people is staying at your house? Answer: NONE!

Also if what Amy stated is true and other cities are sending there homeless to Missoula then maybe the court system needs to get involved.

How about a homeless shelter that is ran by donations? There is no reason for this in this country.

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Posted by Shadow on 02/18/2014 at 3:12 PM

This issue is really kicking a dead dog - the more you kick it, the more it's going to stink. They send the homeless to Missoula from everywhere else in Montana - did we know that? If you're homeless in Great Falls, they send you to Missoula! So that says SOMETHING for the way we treat homeless least it must be better than other cities, right? This ban isn't going to work simply because it's impossible to enforce. After 11:00 at night, the streets by the bars are full of people standing around being loud and carrying on because they can't smoke in the bars...what are they doing about that? I didn't think anything...BECAUSE THAT'S REVENUE.

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Posted by Amy on 02/15/2014 at 8:14 AM

What's the real issue here? Months and months, and this will not go away. These stupid news stories are bothering me just as much as all those bums the downtown businessmen, and women, are so up in arms about. Give me a break!

Will these same upstanding business folk be paying the fines, legal bills, and court costs of this DOJ lawsuit and all associated costs for the months and possibly years to come? Will all those weekend shoppers and made-of-glass teenagers feel better walking downtown now? Can our drunk college students stagger without fear of tripping over a cardboard sidewalk sign?

Why do we hate poor people in Missoula, and why do they scare our socks off? Are we afraid we could be just like they are a lot faster than we'd care to admit? Let's face it, the whole state is relying on a crumbling and antiquated business model wholly dependent upon fossile fuel energy. The only way we can make money in this state is by destroying. We can't make anything of value here, and that scares us.

Well, maybe we could if our leaders weren't putting all their time, money, and concern into issues like this. Guys, there are thousands of people living in Missoula who never even go downtown. What are you doing for them?

Nothing? That's what I thought.

Greg Strandberg
Candidate - HD98

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Posted by Greg Strandberg on 02/13/2014 at 12:34 PM
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