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Homeless couple sues Missouri town for asking them to leave

By Kevin Murphy

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A small Missouri town was sued on Monday by a homeless couple who are accusing it of violating their constitutional rights by forcing them to leave because they stood on a street corner holding a sign seeking assistance.

Brandalyn Orchard and Edward Gillespie, who were holding a sign that read "Traveling. Anything helps. God Bless," obeyed police who ordered them to leave Miner, Missouri, on September 26, according to the federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on the couple's behalf.

Officers, who showed them copies of ordinances against vagrancy, begging and loitering, told the couple they would be arrested if they did not leave town in five minutes, the lawsuit said.

The city clerk in the town of 980 people in southeast Missouri said ordinances the officers cited do not exist, the lawsuit said.

"The police are our first line of defense and we entrust them with the ability to arrest, but in return we need some checks and balances," Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a news release.

"The ACLU is stepping in because it is especially egregious when police try to intimidate those who are least likely to have the resources to defend their rights."

Joe Fuchs, attorney for the city, declined to comment on the lawsuit on Monday. The two police officers allegedly involved in the incident were not identified in the lawsuit.

Orchard and Gillespie, from Missouri, are asking the court for unspecified damages and an injunction to prevent the city from attempting to enforce "policies and customs" that are unconstitutional.

It is unclear where the officers got the ordinances they showed the couple, Missouri ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1970s that laws against vagrancy - or having no visible means of support - were unconstitutional, Rothert said.

Free speech protections allowed the couple to hold the sign and they were not standing on the street corner to an extent that could be considered unlawful loitering, he said.

(Editing By Brendan O'Brien and Mohammad Zargham)

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