Panhandlers win in court over sheriff's office in Chicago

CHICAGO (FOX 32 / AP) - A jury at a federal civil trial Thursday awarded $1,500 each to two panhandlers who took one of the nation's largest sheriff's offices to court for violating their constitutional right to ask passers-by for money.

Jurors returned after just four hours of deliberations with a finding that the failure of the Cook County Sheriff's Office to train deputies on panhandler rights led its deputies to order Kim Pindak, 63, and Sam Phillips, 57, to stop begging on Daley Plaza, a busy public square in downtown Chicago. Pindak and Phillips said the deputies' actions violated their free-speech rights under the First Amendment.

"(The deputies) were just bothering me just for being there, asking people for help," Pindak said.

FOX 32: What's your pitch when you're out there?

"I have a cup and I ask if they could spare any food or change. Which is honest!" he added.

The panhandlers' lawyers said securing a finding that departments must ensure staff understand panhandlers' rights - not money - was why they chose to litigate the case for nearly six years. The $3,000 award was also more than they expected to win.

"It's wonderful that two people who panhandle to make ends meet can come to court and hold accountable the sheriff of one of the largest counties in the nation," lead plaintiff attorney Adele Nicholas said outside court after the jury's decision.

A lawyer representing the sheriff's department, Anthony Zecchin, referred during closing arguments Thursday to Pindak's talent at chess, alleging several times that his 2010 lawsuit was primarily a money-making scheme.

The attorney told jurors: "You're just pawns being manipulated by Mr. Pindak."

Speaking outside court after the decision, Pindak said he plans to spend most of the $1,500 on necessities, including clothes and shoes.

"And I might get a chess book or two," he said.

The next step, Nicholas said, would be asking the presiding judge in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, to issue an injunction ordering Sheriff Tom Dart to train staff properly.

While jurors' decision went against the sheriff's department as a whole, they did find in favor of Sheriff's Deputy Laverne Nance, concluding he didn't violate the men's rights as an individual officer.

A brief statement released by the sheriff's department said that "it strives to treat everyone it encounters with dignity and respect, which it did in this case."

Phillips, who said he started panhandling 10 years ago after losing his job as a butcher, said he can make as much as $8,000 annually begging five hours a day, five days a week. He said he typically holds up a sign that reads, "I'm Just Hungry."

Pindak also said he's lost about ten dollars a day over the past four years since the two deputies ended his panhandling.

"The law is clear and undisputed that the first amendment protects the right to engage in peaceful non-agressive panhandling," said attorney Adele Nicholas.

Pindak got so fed up with being harassed that he recorded a conversation with a Deputy Jevtic.

"You can't panhandle. There's no panhandling on the Plaza. You can--you're not banned from the plaza, you just can't panhandle or bother people as they're going about their business," Jevtic said in the audio recording.

Pindak said he studied pre-med in college for several years in his 20s before mental illness sent his life into a tailspin.

On the witness stand, he told jurors he's occasionally handed a $20 bill but often makes just several dollars a day.

During cross-examination, Zecchin also repeatedly asked Pindak about chess, suggesting his ability to think several moves ahead led him to sue.

Pindak denied that, answering he'd always been good at chess but not at life.

"I'm not a mastermind," he said.

After the ruling, Pindak also had the following to say: "I was very grateful that God had helped us. And I'm grateful to the lawyers that worked so hard."