Kathy Posner

Chicago is known not only for crooked politicians but also for a section on prestigious north Michigan Avenue known as the Magnificent Mile. The 12 block stretch contains the city’s largest shopping district with approximately 3,100,000 sq. ft. of retails shops (460 stores), 275 restaurants, 51 hotels and many cultural attractions. It is estimated that approximately 22,000,000 people visit the area annually. To paraphrase bank robber Willie Sutton, “That’s where the money is.” So besides shoppers and tourists, the area is a Mecca for panhandlers. But are they allowed to beg there? Is it their space also?

First some history. In 1991 the city enacted a panhandling ordinance. In 2001, on behalf of three beggars who had been arrested or ticketed over the years, Mark Weinberg, an attorney who represented the panhandlers, filed a suit in defense of their First Amendment right to beg. He later got the suit certified as a class-action. That ordinance was repealed in 2002.

In 2003, The City of Chicago settled the suit and the $500,000 the city had to pay was divided up with $375,000 going to the attorneys with the meager rest to the panhandlers. The nearly 5,000 members of the class-action were allowed to files claims for $400 if they had been arrested or $50 if they had been ticketed.

In 2004, Chicago passed a new panhandling ordinance. Under this version, panhandlers can be ticketed if they ask for money within 10 feet of bus stops, ATMs, currency exchanges or banks. They are barred from begging for money from people in restaurants, sidewalk cafes and gas stations. They cannot be overly aggressive, rude, use profanity or touch the person from whom they are begging. It also bars two or more panhandlers from soliciting money together.

The law does not place any geographic restriction on begging. So when Chicago police attempted to tell panhandlers that it was illegal to beg on Michigan Avenue the panhandlers did the smart thing. They secretly taped police officers telling them to move on.

That video formed the basis for another federal class-action suit and an emergency injunction was filed this week seeking to defend the beggars’ rights. “The Chicago Police Department is presently engaged in a constitutionally abusive practice of illegally removing panhandlers from select portions of Michigan Avenue by fraudulently telling them that it is illegal to panhandle there and threatening to arrest them if they do not move," reads the complaint.

And who is the civil rights attorney representing the panhandlers? The same Mark Weinberg who collected $375,000 in fees from the panhandling suit he won in 2003.

"People do find panhandlers a nuisance," attorney Mark Weinberg told ABC Chicago. "But, the question is, Do we sacrifice Constitution rights because we find them a nuisance? And my answer is no."

Panhandlers have the legal right to beg on Michigan Avenue, but should an attorney be allowed to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars if he wins a suit and the plaintiffs who were aggrieved basically get nothing? Weinberg was the one who arranged for the undercover taping so he set up his own potential huge fee.

The real story shouldn’t be about the panhandler’s Constitutional right to beg on the Magnificent Mile but about who should protect them from an attorney who keeps all the money. Attorney Mark Weinberg might say that people find panhandlers a nuisance, but to him they are a gold mine.