ACLU challenges panhandling rules in Elgin, Aurora

Elgin and Aurora are among 15 municipalities in Illinois whose panhandling ordinances are being challenged by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the American Civil Liberties Union, which are asking for an immediate moratorium followed by repeal.

The ordinances fall into three categories: a general panhandling ban; a ban on soliciting people in vehicles; or a ban on aggressive panhandling, said Diane O'Connell, community lawyer for the Coalition. Elgin places such restrictions on panhandling, while Aurora prohibits it on public ways.

The ordinances all have characteristics that have been struck down by courts, she said. The nonprofit groups asked for an answer by Sept. 28 and plan to pursue legal action if there is no repeal, O'Connell said.

Elgin Corporation Counsel Bill Cogley said the city will review the issue and respond by the end of September.

Aurora also hasn't made a decision yet, city spokesman Dan Ferrelli said.

The effort affects more than 240 communities in the nation and is led by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which teamed up with legal organizations to repeal panhandling bans "and redirect resources to housing and other support for people experiencing homelessness," a news release said.

Homeless advocates say requesting money is a form of constitutionally protected speech, and cite a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling about signs that found that if an ordinance regulates speech differently based on its content, it is likely to be unconstitutional.

Many cities, such as Elgin, changed their laws after the 2015 ruling, O'Connell said. However, since that ruling, all federal lawsuits - 25 to date - filed against cities with panhandling bans have succeeded and at least 31 more communities have repealed their ordinances. None of those was in the Chicago area, she said.

Elgin prohibits panhandling in places including in the roadway, at bus stops and in city parking lots. The ordinance prohibits "aggressive" panhandling that includes touching or blocking passage intentionally, and using profane language.

"There are all types of speech that could be aggressive," O'Connell said. "A person could be catcalling aggressively, or a person could be evangelizing aggressively, or asking for a petition to be signed aggressively ... When you target one type of speech, that's unconstitutional."

Panhandlers in Aurora are charged under a disorderly conduct ordinance that forbids "begging or soliciting funds on the public ways, except as otherwise permitted," such as when nonprofits or firefighters get permits to raise funds for various causes, Ferrelli said.

Elgin police received 368 calls about panhandling and issued 32 citations in the past 12 months, police spokeswoman Kristie Hilton said.

Data for Aurora wasn't immediately available, Ferrelli said.

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