August 13, 2014 - By David Fleet
Atlas Twp.- In late 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sent letters to 84 municipalities across the state notifying them that anti-begging ordinances on their books are unconstitutional and should be repealed.
In Genesee County, both Flint Township and Swartz Creek received letters and are currently deliberating changes in the ordinances.
So far, ACLU has not challenged the township begging or panhandling ordinance (94.008 Sec. VIII) that makes it unlawful to go about from person to person or from place to place, soliciting contributions for oneself or others; provided, however, that soliciting of charitable contributions pursuant to a permit issued by the township clerk is not prohibited.
The ordinance was amended in 2006 to require a permit for those wishing to solicit in the township.
In a statement from the ACLU, Michigan staff attorney Dan Korobkin wrote, "Anti-begging laws that punish that most vulnerable segment of our society are not only harsh, they are unconstitutional. No one should be thrown in jail or subjected to a fine for holding up a sign or simply asking for spare change. In the wake of the appeals court decision, we're putting these cities and townships on notice that it's time they repeal their unconstitutional ordinances."
Township Clerk Tere Onica, who supported the amendment in 2006, says it's right for the community.
"We had people that would just come into town and go door-to-door, so we wanted a way for our police to know who they were," said Onica.
"So when residents call the township they know if they (solicitors) are legitimate. In addition, we provide a copy of the ordinance along with the regulation on hours (of soliciting) and also trespassing rules."
Onica said solicitors are changed $20 per person for the permit, which requires a driver's license and the name of the company they are working for if necessary.
"Other groups such as Girl Scouts, band members and politicians or even college students or religious organizations working door-to-door are not required to have a permit," she added.
Onica said that since the permit was required, no one has requested to "beg or panhandle in the township."
"If they did ask to solicit funds for their own needs I would recommend they go to one of the local churches for assistance," she said. "People do fall on hard times, no doubt. But myself or our office would connect them with people that could help."
Onica suggests that since there are few urban areas in the township where motorists or pedestrians could be solicited, few beggars or panhandlers are in the area.
Other area officials say the will continue to support the township begging and panhandling ordinance.
"It could be that the ACLU may be getting the word out that First Amendment rights have been restricted by some communities," said Rick Misek, township planning commission director.
Misek provided an example of who might be turned down for such a permit to go door-to-door.
"Where the ACLU is going to have strong opposition from officials is where they let al-Qaeda or ISIS solicit funds carte blanche without government scrutiny. I do not want my fellow Americans to be solicited by these groups—we are free only because of great sacrifice—that's not to be taken lightly."