Early this fall, Brandalyn Orchard and Edward Gillespie were on the road again. The couple, who are homeless, make their way around the state by hitchhiking and found themselves at an intersection near the outskirts of the tiny town of Miner (population 979). There, they took out a simple sign.
"Traveling. Anything helps. God Bless."
While hitchhikers and panhandlers are not a uncommon sight in many cities, the Miner police department apparently took exception. What happened next lead to a lawsuit filed on the couple's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.
This story has been updated with the result of the lawsuit. Continue below.
According to the lawsuit, filed earlier this week, a Miner police officer approached the couple and told them they were breaking city law. When Orchard and Gillespie asked which law specifically, the officer left and came back with copies of three highlighted laws, saying "VAGRANCY," "BEGGING ETC." and "LOITERING" were all illegal in Miner. After a second officer joined the scene, the couple allege they were told they'd be arrested if they didn't leave town in five minutes. Orchard and Gillespie obliged.
Realizing something didn't feel right, the couple contacted the ACLU.
"Anybody can contact us," says Diane Balogh, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Missouri. "They're Missouri residents who felt their constitutional rights were violated."
UPDATE, October 15, 2014: Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh, Jr. entered a consent judgment against the city of Miner for its unconstitutional ordinances and ordered the city to pay both Orchard and Gillespie $2,500 each. The city will also pay their lawyers fees, valued at $4,316.
"Bullying is never good, but it is especially bad when done by our government and directed at those who might lack the resources to defend their rights," said Jeffrey A. Mittman, the ACLU of Missouri's executive director. "Being homeless or poor doesn't strip you of your constitutional rights and it is the role of the ACLU to step in and be a voice for those who may feel powerless to challenge the government."
Our original story continues below.
Attorneys for the group contacted the city of Miner asking for copies of the ordinances that had been used to run the couple out of town. According to the suit, their request got a surprising response.
"On October 17, 2013, Danielle Patrick, in her capacity as City Clerk for City of Miner, responded in writing: 'At this time the City of Miner does not have any policies or ordinances relating to begging, loitering, or vagrancy,'" the filing states.
"There are two violations -- the most egregious is the police were trying to enforce laws that aren't on their books and then the other is a free speech right," says Balogh. "Just because they're homeless doesn't mean they lose their free speech right. All they were doing was holding up a sign."
The lawsuit is asking for an injunction preventing the Miner police from enforcing these (apparently nonexistent?) laws and asks for damages for the couple.
Daily RFT reached out to Miner city clerk Patrick for clarification on the existence of these laws, but she would not comment.
Read the full lawsuit below:
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