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Keep panhandlers, others off dangerous medians, Mayor Suthers proposes

October 11, 2016 Updated: October 11, 2016 at 7:50 pm
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photo - Alex Harris and Lindsay Miller sit on the corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, with their dog, Titan, and a sign asking for work. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Alex Harris and Lindsay Miller sit on the corner of Pikes Peak Avenue and Tejon Street Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, with their dog, Titan, and a sign asking for work. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

After having to strike down anti-panhandling ordinances and pay $103,000 last year for use of "debtors' prisons," Colorado Springs officials now want to craft laws to keep people off narrow and peaked street medians that put them in harm's way.

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that expression of speech - including panhandling - is protected by the First Amendment.

But the ordinance would be designed for specific medians where accidents have occurred or are likely, Mayor John Suthers said Tuesday. And they would apply not only to panhandlers, but also vendors, pamphlet distributors and political signage, Suthers said.

"It would be conceivable that would be constitutional," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. "But only if the motivation is truly one of public safety and not one of wanting to push undesirable people out of sight and out of the way.

"But it's not just about the motivation. It also needs to be very carefully, narrowly tailored."

That's Suthers' aim, he said, and he has asked the city's traffic and legal departments to work on public safety protections. The law would "show compelling government interest to get around that" Supreme Court ruling, he said.

City Council members echoed concerns the mayor shared during their Tuesday luncheon meeting.

Panhandlers sometimes appear to be putting construction workers in danger at the massive reconstruction project at the Interstate 25 and Cimarron Street interchange, said Council President Merv Bennett.

"A lot of people are upset about it," Suthers said, "and feel threatened with a guy 1 foot from their car, with a dog."

He said an Ohio city recently designated a few medians as off-limits to pedestrians purely for public safety concerns, and the trial court there "was sympathetic."

The city stopped enforcing its panhandling laws last year, just two days before a federal judge struck down a Grand Junction panhandling statute. That broad ordinance, challenged by the ACLU, had limited when and where people could ask for money.

Colorado Springs agreed, in a May settlement with the ACLU, to reimburse $103,000 to dozens of homeless and impoverished people for their time spent wrongly jailed under the debtors' prison system.

Municipal judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys had to undergo training on the constitutional rights of indigent defendants.

Sixty-six people qualified to get $125 per day of incarceration for non-jailable offenses. Combined, they spent more than 400 days in jail under a "pay-or-serve" system offering $50 daily credits toward court fines. Each sentence was for a minor offense such as panhandling.

Shawn Hardman was due $11,250 after spending more than 90 days in jail to pay court-ordered fines for solicitation. He later lost his feet to frostbite while homeless on Colorado Springs streets and moved to Grand Junction.

"They're the ones being neglected by the citizens and the society that we live in," Hardman said at the time of the people getting payouts.

But Suthers said the ordinance he envisions would protect the public safety of median pedestrians and passing drivers on busy streets with narrow, dangerous medians.

"Yes, I think that could be done," Silverstein said. "As they say, the devil's in the details. I would hope the City Council remains sensitive to First Amendment issues."

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