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City Council will revisit Colorado Springs sit-lie ordinance opposed by the ACLU

January 9, 2016 Updated: January 11, 2016 at 12:58 pm
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City officials are working on an ordinance to ban people from sitting or lying on sidewalks, planters or anywhere else not specifically designed to be sat upon downtown and in Old Colorado City. Outside the 711 convenience store, is a popular place for congregation at Tejon St. and E. Pikes Peak Ave. A group gathers and hangs out on the planters on Monday, Aug. 24, 2015. (Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette)

Two Colorado Springs panhandling ordinances have been gutted because of ACLU demands, but as it reviews those laws Monday the City Council also will revisit a sit-lie ordinance opposed by the ACLU.

The sit-lie ordinance was introduced in June at Mayor John Suthers' behest. It spawned widespread criticism and has been watered down, but its essence remains intact.

Initially, it held penalties of up to $2,500 and six months in jail for anyone who would sit, lie, kneel or recline on sidewalks, alleys, trails, streets, planters or some benches downtown and in Old Colorado City.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado opposed it, Executive Director Nathan Woodliff Stanley said in June.

"It is perfectly OK to regulate actual obstruction," Stanley said at a public hearing. "But this ordinance makes illegal sitting in places at times that have nothing to do with safety. The courts have ruled that public spaces, including sidewalks, have a core purpose of personal interaction, free speech, general assembly. ... This will violate your rights, no matter who you are. It opens the city to significant liability."

Suthers, who spent 10 years as Colorado's attorney general before becoming mayor, disagreed.

"I don't see this as a civil rights or human rights issue," he said then. "No one ought to be able to lay on the sidewalk. We ought to make our sidewalks safe for passage so people don't feel obstructed or harassed. I just don't see that it's anti-homeless to say you can't lie or sit on sidewalks."

The penalties have been reduced to a maximum of $500, with 90 days in jail possible on the second offense, and sitting on planters and benches would be permissible. The ordinance also has been renamed the "Pedestrian Access Act" to give it a more positive moniker, co-sponsoring Councilman Tom Strand said.

Nonetheless, "The ACLU of Colorado opposes any new laws that create a crime out of using public spaces, especially those that disproportionately target people who are homeless or living in poverty," ACLU Colorado spokesman John Krieger said Friday.

"While the Council has responded to resounding public rejection of the 'sit-lie' concept by attempting to re-brand the proposal and to soften some of its more absurd elements, there is still no public safety justification for making it a crime to sit.

"The Council, the police, and the courts should focus their time and resources on actual crimes with actual victims, not rounding up and harassing people who are doing nothing more than sitting."

The Downtown Partnership supports the new ordinance, said President and CEO Susan Edmondson.

"The historic hearts of the city - Downtown and Old Colorado City - are the only two commercial areas in the entire city designed specifically in a pedestrian-oriented manner," says a statement from the Partnership. "Safe and clear passage on these sidewalks is essential to ensuring a welcoming experience for all people, be they residents or visitors exploring the locally owned small businesses and cultural amenities in these areas. .

"Downtown Colorado Springs provides ample outdoor public seating opportunity. ... This ensures all people have easy access to convenient seating, while this ordinance will ensure pedestrians have clear passage through sidewalk right-of-ways."

Shawna Rae Kemppainen, executive director of Urban Peak Colorado Springs, lauded the city for working with myriad stakeholders to develop a new shelter project south of downtown.

"However," Kemppainen said, "if you are a person with very limited or no means, it doesn't make a difference whether the fine is $500 or $2,500. Result: You cannot pay it."

Still, she said, given the city's "deep commitments" to help people escape homelessness, "let's focus our attention on the long game rather than a lightning rod."

Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler initially opposed the sit-lie ordinance but said Friday she supports the new version.

"I am pleased that they have modified the ordinance to take out any references to sitting on public seating areas, and I am glad they took out anything in reference to fencing. . So it seems they've listened to all the concerns the council members and public have had. It's taken a while," Gaebler said.

"My only concern is, I think this ordinance is needed, but I don't think it's really going to solve the issues we're having with aggressive panhandling and the concerns I'm hearing from people downtown who feel threatened."

Enforcement of local panhandling ordinances led the ACLU last fall to accuse the city of penalizing impoverished people who had not violated the laws. The organization cited nearly 900 citations for soliciting on or near streets or highways issued by Colorado Springs police between January 2013 and August 2015.

The city created debtors' prisons by jailing homeless and impoverished people who couldn't pay court-ordered fines, the ACLU complained.

The City Attorney's Office quickly conceded that changes were needed.

Police told officers Sept. 15 to stop enforcing the ordinance on panhandling near a street or highway, and officers were directed Oct. 5 to refrain from verbal warnings to passive solicitors and citing those who continued to panhandle despite warnings.

In late October, the city dismissed charges, vacated fines and sentencing requirements, and voided warrants in 375 panhandling-related cases, including 332 active cases of solicitation near a street or highway.

The ACLU and City Attorney Wynetta Massey met in December and still are negotiating how to compensate the defendants in those cases, Krieger said Friday.

Deleted from the revised panhandling ordinances are sections that forbade panhandling within 20 feet of automated-teller machines, on a public bus, in a bus stop or in a parking lot or garage, within 20 feet of a building's entrance, in a patio or sidewalk café area or after dark and before dawn. Also no longer banned is soliciting in groups of two or more and panhandling people waiting in line for tickets.

Mark Silverstein, legal director of ACLU Colorado, was out of the country Friday and couldn't be reached for comment on the revised panhandling ordinances.

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