In the summer of 2016, Mike Rambo, a man who was enduring a period of homelessness, asked the ACLU of Colorado for legal assistance.  He had been peacefully displaying a sign asking for charity when he received a citation for violating a Town of Bennett ordinance.  The ordinance prohibited “loitering for the purpose of begging.”  Mr. Rambo knew that his conduct was protected by the First Amendment and that the ordinance was unconstitutional.  But he was unable to convince the police officer or the prosecutor.  When he contacted the ACLU, he had an upcoming bench trial where he faced a potential penalty of a $1000 fine and up to a year in jail.

Laws that prohibit “loitering for the purpose of begging” were likely drafted many years ago, before courts recognized that asking for charity, even by means of panhandling, is expression that is protected by the First Amendment.   These older ordinances are much broader, and much more obviously unconstitutional, than the panhandling ordinances in Colorado Springs, Grand Junction, and Fort Collins that government attorneys attempted to defend (but unsuccessfully) in court challenges brought by the ACLU of Colorado in the 2010s.   Instead of attempting to limit the restrictions to certain times, to certain places, or to panhandling in a certain manner, these older ordinances forbid asking for charity anywhere in the municipality, at any time, and by any means, including by peacefully sitting and holding a sign. 

Two years earlier, letters from ACLU lawyers persuaded the City of Durango to repeal an identical ordinance that prohibited “loitering for the purpose of begging.” 

In 2016, ACLU lawyers believed that even the most conservative city attorneys and prosecutors would recognize that ordinances prohibiting “loitering for the purpose of begging” could not withstand First Amendment scrutiny.

ACLU lawyers spoke with the Town of Bennett’s prosecuting attorney, who agreed to dismiss the charge against Mr. Rambo.     

The ACLU of Colorado then wrote to 34 Colorado municipalities that, like Bennett,  make it a crime to “loiter for the purpose of begging.”  The letters demanded that municipal authorities stop enforcement and take immediate steps to repeal what the letter characterized as “legally indefensible” ordinances.

Each of the 34 jurisdicitons agreed to stop enforcing the antiquated ordinances and begin the necessary steps to repeal them. 

The municipalities that received the ACLU’s letter are:

Avon                              Bennett         

Brighton                         Buena Vista         

Carbondale                      Cherry Hills Village

Cortez                            Crested Butte   

Cripple Creek                   Del Norte             

Dillon                             Eaton

Englewood                       Firestone         

Garden City                     Gilcrest               

Green Mountain Falls         Johnstown

La Junta                         Leadville         

Lochbuie                         Mead                 

Meeker                           Milliken

Minturn                          Nederland       

Oak Creek                       Platteville             

Rifle                               Rocky Ford

Salida                             San Luis         

Severance                        Timnath

ACLU news release: