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Proposed Colorado Springs law would keep people, including pandhandlers, off dangerous medians

January 10, 2017 Updated: January 10, 2017 at 4:20 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)

Editor's note: Fines for violations of the proposed median ordinance are restricted to less than $500 and/or probation, and imprisonment is prohibited, according to a footnote to city penalty provisions that the ordinance cites. An earlier version of this story said the ordinance allowed for fines up to $2,500 and jail time up to six months

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Keep off unsafe medians or face fines of up to $500, the city of Colorado Springs now proposes.

The ordinance, originally proposed by Mayor John Suthers and recommended Monday to the City Council, would apply to panhandlers, vendors, pamphlet distributors and anyone else. It comes one year after the city was forced to repeal panhandling ordinances and later eliminate its debtors prisons, created when panhandlers working streets and medians couldn't pay fines and were jailed instead.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado challenged those laws and actions in October 2015,and the city agreed to stop converting fines into jail time and stop jailing people for unjailable offenses. It also repealed the panhandling laws that led to those practices. The city further agreed to a $103,000 settlement to repay victims.

The new law may be able to avoid such an ACLU challenge by focusing on safety issues, though. When Suthers proposed the new law in October, he noted that pedestrians on narrow, peaked medians jeopardize their lives and distract drivers. The ordinance would be designed for specific medians where accidents had occurred or are likely, Suthers said at the time.

Several council members reported seeing similar dangerous behavior, and enthusiasm for the proposed law blossomed.

The new law would post signs to keep people off medians less than 4 feet wide on streets with more than an 8 percent grade that have traffic moving faster than 30 mph.

"Last year, the Colorado Springs City Council made it a crime to sit," said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein, referring to the sit-lie law that bans people from sitting, lying, kneeling or reclining on streets, sidewalks or alleys in downtown or Old Colorado City commercial zones. . "Now they are considering an equally absurd plan to make it a crime, punishable by six months in jail, for pedestrians to cross the street."

Asked by Councilman Bill Murray whether the ACLU had reviewed the proposed law, City Senior Attorney Anne Turner said the city hadn't gotten feedback from the ACLU or other organizations. But she noted that Silverstein told The Gazette earlier that such an ordinance "is doable if narrowly tailored to the city's safety interests."

Silverstein had said such a law "needs to be very carefully, narrowly tailored."

Murray said, "I would show this to them (the ACLU) rather than pass it and then get into a disagreement."Replied Turner: "They don't bless or approve a legislative action that's going to restrict First Amendment activity. Whether they'll go so far as to challenge it in court is another question."

Silverstein couldn't be reached later to answer that.

When Council President Pro Tem Jill Gaebler asked about the penalties, Turner said punishment would be a fine.

Asked by Gaebler how much, Turner said that would be at the discretion of the Municipal Court judge.

"I don't want this to be about fines," Gaebler said. "I want it to be about protecting our community members."

Councilman Andy Pico asked what would happen if a person crossing the street got stuck on the median. Could that pedestrian be ticketed?

Turner said police would know proper enforcement. However, Silverstein said, "...We fully expect that enforcement would be targeted exclusively against people who are homeless in order to restrict their First Amendment right to peacefully ask for charity."

The council is expected to vote on the ordinance at its regular meeting Jan. 24.

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