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Boulder Facing Legal Action Over Strict No-Panhandling Policy

The City of Boulder’s strict new rules against panhandling may end up in court, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which warned the city that if adopted, the policy would violate the First Amendment.

Boulder is poised to adopt the next phase of a controversial new policy aimed at vagrants and homeless that makes their activities illegal in locations that are popular with tourists. Recently, the city made petty crimes like drinking alcohol from an open container or smoking in a public park punishable with jail time, even for first offenses. (RELATED: Boulder reinstates jail time for minor offenses)

The new measures would make it illegal to ask for money near ATMs, parking payment stations, outdoor patios of restaurants and cafes, bus stops and other places where people might feel “trapped” by a homeless person.

But the prohibitions are too broad, the ACLU warned in a letter sent to Boulder City Council and will undoubtedly be applied only to homeless people and not others who ask for cash.

“Here are a few examples,” the letter reads. “Directors of nonprofit organizations often take prospective donors to lunch at restaurants that may include outdoor dining areas. If the director solicits a donation over lunch, she violates the ordinance. Other patrons of the restaurant violate the ordinance if they ask their companions for a few dollars to help with leaving a tip. A bus patron violates the ordinance if she asks her companion for change for the bus.”

“When a teenager accompanies her mother to an ATM, it is a crime to ask mom for a portion of the withdrawal to fund some shopping.”

The organization said it’s obvious that the ordinance wouldn’t be enforced in these situations, but only when homeless people ask for handouts.

“The ordinance will not be enforced in an evenhanded manner,” the ACLU wrote. “Instead, it will be enforced selectively, only against persons who everyone knows are the real targets of this ordinance.”

If it adopts the ordinance, Boulder “is consciously moving away from its long-held commitment to protecting civil liberties in favor of a draconian crackdown aimed squarely at the vulnerable and least fortunate in the community,” the letter read.

Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the ACLU’s Colorado chapter, wouldn’t tell the Daily Camera whether the ACLU would sue to overturn the law, if it’s adopted. But it’s currently suing the City of Grand Junction over a similar ordinance.

“It is the city’s position that we’ve already attempted to make these restrictions as limited as possible,” city spokeswoman Sarah Huntley told the Camera. “It’s important to go back to the intent of the ordinance to balance people’s right to enjoy a public space with people’s free speech rights.”

The ordinance will be heard at a second reading Tuesday.

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