ST. LOUIS (CN) - A small Missouri town that calls itself a "traveler's oasis" threatened to arrest a homeless couple on bogus vagrancy charges unless they got out of town in five minutes, the ACLU claims in a lawsuit on the couple's behalf.
Brandalyn Orchard and Edward Gillespie sued the City Miner, a southeastern Missouri town with a population of 984, about 140 miles south of St. Louis.
Orchard and Gillespie claim that on Sept. 26 as they stood on a street corner with a sign: "Traveling. Anything helps. God Bless," a Miner police officer told them that begging was prohibited in his city.
Orchard says she asked what law they were violating, and the officer left, then returned with a typewritten list of three ordinances prohibiting vagrancy, begging and loitering.
The begging ordinance stated that no person is to "talk to the public upon any subject on the streets or sidewalks of the town without written permission from the Board of Trustees of the Town of Miner," according to the lawsuit.
Another police officer arrived and told them they would be arrested if they didn't leave Miner within 5 minutes, the plaintiffs claim.
Orchard and Gillespie say they got out of town, then called the ACLU.
ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert contacted Miner City Clerk Danielle Patrick in October, who stated in writing that the town has no such ordinances, according to the complaint.
"Our original view of this case was that this city really had some outdated ordinances that need to be revisited," Rothert told Courthouse News. "Then we talked to the city clerk and found that no ordinance existed."
Rothert has several theories about where the police officers got the so-called ordinances.
He said his best guess is that the officers know the ordinances are bogus, but use them to chase unwanted people away.
A second theory is that the ordinances once existed, but became invalid, though the officers don't know it.
The third theory is that the ordinances do exist and the city clerk is mistaken.
"Our overall goal is that we don't want people, especially vulnerable people like homeless people, to be run off from public areas when they aren't violating any ordinances," Rothert said.
"They appeared to not be violating any ordinances, and even if those ordinances are still in place, they are unconstitutional."
The ACLU seeks an injunction against the ordinances if they do exist and damages for Orchard and Gillespie.
Miner officials did not respond to a request for comment.
Miner describes itself on its website as a "traveler's oasis with great restaurants, a fabulous selection of overnight accommodations, and shopping opportunities galore."
The city calls itself the cultural and economic center of Missouri's Bootheel.
Miner is 93 percent white, and its estimated median household income of $30,256 in 2011 was just two-thirds of the state median of $45,247, according to city-data.com.
Miner lost more than 7 percent of its population from 2000 to 2012, according to city-data.
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