Two men repeatedly ticketed for seeking help to survive from motorists stopped at a Downers Grove intersection can continue their lawsuit against the Village and six individual police officers for violating their rights under the First Amendment, according to U.S. District Court Judge Robert W. Gettleman. The ruling came yesterday in a lawsuit filed by Michael Dumiak and Christopher Simmons in August of 2019.
Responding to the ruling, Mr. Simmons said, “Homeless people still have a voice. I ask for help because even though I work, I don’t make enough to support myself.”
“This is a great win for Mr. Dumiak and Mr. Simmons,” said Rebecca Glenberg, a senior staff lawyer at the ACLU of Illinois and one of the lawyers for the two men. “The judge found that Downers Grove police officers violated our clients’ rights—and should have known at the time that their actions were unconstitutional. The ruling makes clear that virtually all laws targeting panhandling violate the First Amendment. All such laws should be repealed.”
The suit challenges an Illinois statute and Downers Grove ordinance that make it a misdemeanor to solicit contributions, employment, business or rides from passing vehicles. Downers Grove repealed its ordinance in response to the lawsuit, but claimed that they did not have to pay damages to Mr. Simmons and Mr. Dumiak for violating their constitutional rights.
Judge Gettleman rejected officers’ claims that they deserved to be excused from the lawsuit (granted qualified immunity) because they did not violate any clearly established First Amendment law. He noted that the “officers started enforcing the statute and ordinance against plaintiffs in 2018. First Amendment law at that time was clearly established: a speech restriction targeting panhandling discriminates based on content and survives muster only when supported by a compelling justification. The statute and former ordinance fall short.”
Mr. Dumiak and Mr. Simmons sued following repeated arrests for asking for help when they panhandled in Downers Grove. The men stood on a raised median strip seeking donations from people in vehicles stopped at the intersection of Butterfield and Finley Roads. They were charged under the Illinois vehicle solicitation law, which prohibits their requests for help but does not prohibit similar activities such as gathering petition signatures or distributing leaflets. It also allows municipalities to exempt charities from enforcement, even as local officials enforce it against individuals who as for money they require for basic essentials.
Diane O’Connell, Community Lawyer at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless says, “We are pleased with this ruling because it affirms not only the First Amendment rights of our clients, but also that law enforcement and municipalities can’t discriminate against a person’s speech just because they are poor or homeless. Everyone has the right to ask for help.”
With Judge Gettleman describing the state law as “flagrantly unconstitutional,” Mr. Dumiak and Mr. Simmons can now proceed in court.