Police action against homeless couple prompts lawsuit

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 | 10:39 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing a small southeast Missouri town because police allegedly threatened to arrest a homeless couple for holding a sign asking for help.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau on behalf of the couple, Edward Gillespie and Brandalyn Orchard. It names the city of Miner and two unidentified police officers as defendants in the case.

The lawsuit contends that in late September, Gillespie and Orchard were standing at a busy intersection holding a sign that read, "Traveling. Anything helps. God bless." A Miner officer told them to leave.

The ACLU says the officer later showed copies of purported city ordinances related to vagrancy, begging and loitering. A second officer arrived and the couple was told to leave town or face arrest. The couple left and never returned out of fear of being arrested, the lawsuit stated.

"Being homeless is already hard enough without having to worry about the possibility of being arrested," Orchard said in a statement through the ACLU. "We rely on the kindness of strangers and should not have to fear legal repercussions for simply asking for help."

A Miner police spokesman declined to comment.

Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Missouri, said he later learned that Miner has no ordinance prohibiting the holding of signs seeking money.

"Police should never abuse their power by threatening to enforce ordinances that don't exist," Rothert said in a statement.

The ACLU says Gillespie and Orchard are Missouri residents, but it didn't cite a hometown. The lawsuit says the couple travel across the state, mainly by hitchhiking.

Miner, which has about 1,000 residents, is near Sikeston and is about 130 miles south of St. Louis.


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