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Dalton & Tomich Files Federal Lawsuit Challenging Constitutionality of Donation Bin Ordinance

Last week, Dalton & Tomich filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of its client, Planet Aid, in the Western District of Michigan. The lawsuit challenges a zoning ordinance that was recently adopted by the City of St. Johns that completely bans all donation bins within the City.

Planet Aid is a nonprofit organization that was founded in order to improve health, aid vulnerable children, and reduce poverty. To effectuate its mission, Planet Aid operates donation bins at various sites in Michigan and other states at which the public can drop off donated clothing, shoes, and other textiles. Planet Aid then sells the donations and uses the proceeds to pay for a variety of development programs in impoverished communities in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Planet Aid collects the donated items on a weekly basis, and each bin contains contact information at which Planet Aid representatives can be contacted for any reason.

In December 2012, Planet Aid placed two donation bins at different locations in St. Johns. One month later, the City sent Planet Aid a letter demanding it remove the bins after the City unilaterally determined the bins were a “nuisance.” Prior to this letter, Planet Aid had never received any complaints or concerns from the City regarding its bins. The City removed the bins on its own in February 2013. The City refused to allow Planet Aid to challenge the finding that its bins were a “nuisance,” and subsequently refused to allow Planet Aid to appeal the City’s decision to remove the bins.

After the City had already confiscated Planet Aid’s bin, the City decided to amend its Zoning Ordinance to include a prohibition on donation bins. At the December 2013 City Commission meeting, the Commission discussed the proposed Ordinance. The City Attorney justified the Ordinance on the fact certain unnamed “for-profit companies” were operating donation bins in the City “without getting permission.” In contrast, Planet Aid is a non-profit organization and always obtains written or verbal permission from a property owner before placing its bin at a particular property. Further, while the Mayor discussed how bins in other communities had trash accumulating near them, the City Supervisor clarified there were very few instances of trash accumulation in St. Johns.

The Ordinance passed unanimously on January 27, 2014, and went into effect immediately. Under the Ordinance, any organization – both for-profit and non-profit – is completely prohibited from operating donation bins in the City of St. Johns. The Ordinance also includes a “grandfather” clause, which exempts donation bins that existed on the date the Ordinance was adopted. This exemption does not apply to Planet Aid because the City had previously removed its donation bins and refused to allow Planet Aid to return the bins.

In its Complaint, Planet Aid alleges the City’s Ordinance violates its rights under the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions. In essence, Planet Aid contends the Ordinance is unconstitutional because it prohibits Planet Aid from soliciting charitable donations, an activity that has long been protected by the First Amendment. At the same time, the Ordinance allows similar charitable organizations that operate at permanent structures, such as Salvation Army, to continue soliciting and accepting charitable donations with no restrictions. Planet Aid also argues the Ordinance is an unconstitutional violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich have extensive litigation experience representing individuals and organizations that have been subject to discriminatory treatment by local governmental entities. If you represent an organization that has experienced similar discrimination, feel free to contact us to discuss your matter.

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