CHICAGO (AP) — A federal civil trial pitting two panhandlers against one of the nation's largest sheriff's departments got underway Monday, in a case stemming from a lawsuit that alleges the men were improperly stopped from begging at a popular Chicago square.
Kim Pindak and Sam Phillips claim they lost up to $10 a day over four years because Cook County sheriff's deputies told them repeatedly they couldn't ask for money at Daley Plaza, best known for its iconic Chicago sculpture by Pablo Picasso.
Pindak, 63, said during a break in the trial that he was forced to supplement his income by begging because all but $30 of his $750-a-month federal disability assistance went toward paying living expenses at an assisted-living facility.
"A lot of people see us as scam artists," he said. "I don't live in the Waldorf Astoria. I'm just trying to survive."
Wearing a sports jacket his attorneys bought him for the trial, Pindak said over lunch that he never imagined he would one day be a subject in a rare panhandler case to go before a federal jury. He quickly added, "I never thought I would be a panhandler, either."
He said he once aspired to become a physician before suffering debilitating mental illness. The extra income from panhandling allows him to buy an occasional coffee, a pair of shoes or sometimes books about his favorite hobby — chess.
Back in the courtroom, he often looked uneasy as he sat at a table for the plaintiffs. The judge, Rebecca Pallmeyer, has presided over some of the most notable cases in recent Illinois history, including the corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
In recent years, courts nationwide have increasingly agreed that asking passers-by for money is constitutionally protected free speech under the First Amendment, said Rebecca Glenberg, a civil liberties lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
The case in Chicago will examine whether lax or nonexistent training for sheriff's deputies regarding panhandlers' rights contributed to violations of Pindak's and Phillips' rights.
Pallmeyer already ruled that the men's rights were violated, at least in some instances. Jurors will be asked to come up with a dollar amount for any damages determined.
Pindak calculates he may have lost up to $10 a day for four days a week over a four-year period because of the sheriff's department; that could add up to more than $8,000.
Adele Nicholas, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, told jurors during her opening statement Monday that the case is about the responsibility law enforcement agencies have to adequately train their staffs about citizens' rights. She said money wasn't the point.
"This case is about something bigger," she said. "It's about responsible police practices."
But an attorney defending the sheriff's office, Patrick Russell, told jurors there was never a concerted effort to bar panhandlers from Daley Plaza. At worst, he said, panhandlers like Pindak might have been asked to "move along" from time to time.
He said they were not arrested, detained or prosecuted.
"So I ask you: What are the damages?" he said.
Another attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Weinberg, has filed other panhandler lawsuits. One, a 2001 class-action suit, argued it was illegal for Chicago to define panhandling as disorderly conduct. That suit was settled, entitling 5,000 panhandlers to payouts of $400 each.
City ordinance prohibits aggressive panhandling tactics. But no one accuses Pindak or Phillips of that.
Phillips said he simply holds a sign while panhandling that reads, "I'm Just Hungry."