Des Moines City Council member crowdfunds fine for man ticketed while panhandling

Indira Sheumaker — via @Indira4DSM on Twitter

Councilmember Indira Sheumaker raised more than enough money this month to pay a local man’s $95 ticket based on an ordinance she says “criminalizes poverty,” and may violate his First Amendment rights.

Driving home on Sept. 17, Sheumaker, representative for Ward 1 on the Des Moines City Council, witnessed an individual being issued a fine for what appeared to be panhandling.

“I, at the time, had been told by staff that that was not supposed to be happening,” Sheumaker told Little Village.

“This is somebody who’s holding a sign and saying, ‘Please donate money to me.’ And so we’re giving tickets to people who are literally begging for money. It’s not effective. It’s criminalizing poverty, criminalizing homelessness.”

A few days before, Sheumaker attended a city council meeting in which business owners demanded an increase in enforcement on the unhoused community.

Some councilmembers were receptive to requests from business owners like Exile Brewing Company’s Amy Tursi, who spoke derisively of people she finds “drugged out” and “drunk at 5 p.m.” outside her taproom, making employees feel “threatened” — comments that were widely criticized on social media.

“I think that I agree that there is a problem,” Sheumaker said at the meeting. “However, the problem is that people don’t have housing, people don’t have food, people don’t have resources.”

The man she met had been given a citation based on a pedestrian law Sheumaker and other housing advocates argue is covertly designed to target unhoused people asking for money.

“The ordinance that was being enforced was technically about crossing the street incorrectly,” she explained. “It’s that people are not supposed to stand on the medians if they are less than six feet [wide]. However, it’s just used to prevent people from panhandling.”

The councilmember said she was prepared to pay the man’s $95 ticket herself, but “was encouraged to ask for the community to assist.” She posted a call for donations on Twitter with a link to her Venmo account on Sept. 17, and quickly met her goal.

Currently, Des Moines does not have a standing ordinance that specifically prohibits panhandling. Rather, there is one restricting the usage of medians: it states a pedestrian can only linger on a median or other street island that is six feet wide or wider, excluding curbs, due to traffic safety concerns. This prohibits pedestrians from standing, sitting or resting on about 200 of the city’s medians.

Des Moines’ previous panhandling ban was withdrawn in 2018, after the ACLU of Iowa warned the governments of Des Moines, Grimes and Council Bluffs that such ordinances are unconstitutional. They all complied, as did Coralville when it was sent the ACLU’s warning in April of this year.

“The ACLU challenged that successfully,” Sheumaker said, “and panhandling is a protected First Amendment right.”

The ACLU argued these cities’ ordinances violate a person’s free speech based on the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

In that case, limitations on the size and placement of signs based on the content of the signs were found to be unconstitutional by all nine justices.

Gilbert argued that its ordinance was needed for traffic safety and aesthetics, but the court ruled restrictions based on content are subject to “strict scrutiny” which is the highest level of judicial review, and must be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling public interest.

The Reed case did not involve panhandling — the signs were for church-sponsored events — but two months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals cited the ruling when it struck down a Springfield, Illinois ordinance against panhandling as an overly broad unconstitutional restriction on free speech rights.

Springfield appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, but the justices declined to hear the case, leaving the 7th Circuit ruling in force.

Since then, courts around the country have overturned more panhandling ordinances in over 70 cities around the country. Numerous other cities have removed their ordinances, recognizing they likely violate free speech rights.

In all, Sheumaker said she was sent $135 to pay for the man’s citation. She plans to cash out the extra $40. “If I run across anybody who’s asking for money, [I’ll] just hand it out,” she said.

Sheumaker updated her Twitter followers on Sept. 22: “The fine has been paid, but that’s the only good news. Ticketing people asking for money on medians is a new policy being pushed by a majority of the City Council and implemented by the City Manager and Police Chief. This may not be the last time I ask you to assist our neighbors.”

She told Little Village the problem goes much deeper than any single city ordinance.

“It’s just the entire philosophy of our society at this point and has been for a long time,” she said. “For almost our entire history, people without money and without resources have been villainized. And I think that this is a continuation of that.”

“It’s a very disturbing thing to witness,” she added, “much less for someone to go through.”

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